I’m sitting in Bourbon, per usual, sipping on my daily cup of African tea and munching on deliciously sumptuous forkfuls of warm banana cake as I respond to emails, update this blog, and do other necessary internet work (i.e. facebook). Bourbon Coffee at the Union Trade Center (UTC) is the unofficial hub of umuzungu activity in Kigali, and all around me, there are other umuzungus doing the exact same thing. But do you know what the best part about my arrangement is?
It’s completely free. All of it.
Sure, networking is important in the United States and everywhere else in the world, but here in Kigali it is absolutely crucial to have connections if you want to get anything done. And, of course, there are always the added perks that come with knowing people – like free African tea, cake, internet, drinks, taxi-moto rides, meals, ice cream, earrings, etc. I never would have thought that in two months, I could walk into Papyrus and immediately be served a complimentary steak or grilled tilapia dinner and a cup of fresh passion fruit juice. Papyrus is a classy restaurant bar by day, and the most popular club at night where Kigali gathers every weekend to dance until 6am. The moment I walk into Papyrus on Friday or Saturday night, the DJ puts on my song (“Stereo love”) and I find a glass of Malibu Pineapple waiting for me at the packed bar where dozens of people are impatiently clamoring for their drinks. If I step into the patisserie next to the bar, I have warm buttery croissants, lemon cake, samosas, cookies, and sandwiches to choose from as I please.
It’s pretty fantastic. However, aside from having wonderful friends all over Kigali, the most important connections have been those that have provided the means for me to do research and help my students.
As I discussed at length in my previous post, attempting to do research here has been frustrating and nearly impossible without the right connections. I’ve learned to remind people of scheduled appointments a day in advance, the day of, and an hour before, and still expect that they will be an hour late. I’ve also learned to schedule seven interviews for one day to ensure that three will actually happen. However, even with all those steps, research would have been impossible without the help of others in powerful positions. For instance, I was told that I needed signed authorization from Gasabo District to visit public primary schools. One contact was able to put me directly in touch with the District manager and physically hand him my petition. I was assured that my petition would be approved the next day. One day passed, I called and was told it would be signed the next day; I called the next day, and was promised that it would be signed the next; I called the next day … and so on. After four days, my call wasn’t even picked up.
It was time to bring in a connection even higher up in the power structure. Over coffee at Bourbon, I complain to my friend about my research woes. He laughs and assures me that everything will be fine. One text message from him and ten minutes later, I receive a profuse apology from Gasabo District accompanied by clearance to do research in all the public schools in Rwanda. No need to have signed authorization. Go figure.
It’s all about who you know. Seriously. One of my friends came to Rwanda to research horticulture (which is anything but controversial), and she was also told that she first needed to draft a petition to research and have it authorized. She waited over four months for approval and encountered many other obstacles that made it very difficult to conduct her research.
Last weekend, I came into contact with several interesting figures. The first, an American member of the UN Security Unit who is in charge of arresting war criminals and escorting the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon at public events. From him, I learned more about the unpublished details of the August 11 bombing and the recent UN report. (I’ll discuss this in more detail in my upcoming Politics post). In the United States, I think the general perception of the UN is positive, but in Rwanda, UN workers are among the most hated people in the country. Why? Well, first there’s the history of the UN’s role (or lack of a role) in the 1994 genocide; it’s failure to recognize or do anything to stop the massacre of hundreds of thousands. Second, the majority of Rwandans I’ve spoken to see the current UN presence as a useless organization composed of people who are qualified to do nothing. Unfortunately, my encounters with two UN workers confirm these views. The Security Unit worker that I met has been in the country for almost a year, but does not know the names of any of the districts in Kigali. He imports fancy cars from the US and drives around Kigali in a flashy red sportscar. However, it wasn’t his ignorance about the country that appalled me, so much as his attitude toward local Rwandese. He generally refrains from interacting with Rwandans, but when he does, his manner is patronizing. He wanted his cook to prepare lunch for us and when the cook didn’t understand his specific instructions, he started yelling, “What are you smoking? Are you on dope?” When his cook left, he turned to me, shaking his head. “These people,” he muttered.
After hearing about my research project, he insisted on driving me to the different primary schools for my interviews. He said that he had the next four days off and he had nothing to do except plan BBQs. Although I was hesitant about enlisting the help of someone I barely knew, since I figured he’d have a better idea of how to navigate around Kigali than I did, I finally accepted. Boy, was that a mistake. We drove around in circles in his little red sportscar, and whenever I insisted that we stop and ask for directions, he would roll down his window, rudely beckon over people and ask for directions in slow ungrammatical English as if the people were idiots. Currently, he also has a side project to create a security company in Rwanda, except since his job with the UN does not permit him to start such a venture, he tells me “oh yeah, the company is run by my cook and security guards” and gives me a knowing wink. Before coming to Rwanda, the perception I had from the media prepared me to expect rampant corruption among government officials – instead, I find the most corrupt individuals working for NGOs and outside organizations like the UN. The second UN worker I know is even ruder, if that is possible. I don’t even want to repeat his treatment of my Rwandan friends here on this blog.
The second person I met last weekend was an Indian businessman aiming to expand his England-based company into Rwanda and Burundi. Over the course of a three hour dinner, we talked about our projects in Rwanda, our goals for the future, and our perspectives on purpose and life. He is now a sponsor for the Learning Centre, and last Friday, he transferred funds to me to give to the LC. Now, we are working on a project to provide a means for the students to make enough money to pay for a university education. Currently his plan is to ship cell phones to the school (which would be free of charge for his company) and for the LC students to keep the money from the sales. I’m looking into the legality of such an arrangement, and I’m still not sure if cell phones are the best idea for sales, but regardless – I’m excited about the opportunity to do anything to brighten my students’ futures.
I’m also looking into the possibility of finding my students jobs with the Masaka Farms patisserie at Papyrus, and a local ice cream shop in Kigali. Without degrees or connections, my students don’t stand a chance of finding jobs, but through the connections that I’ve forged, I can potentially do something for my students while I am still here. That’s why I’ve extended my visit for another week and I’ve rebooked my plane ticket for 9/18 instead of 9/11. It means that classes start the day after I get back and I won’t really have time to adjust, but I really can’t leave right now just when all the doors are opening. So that means another week of blogging! Thank you for reading, and stay posted for exciting updates in the days ahead 🙂