I always feel uncomfortable pulling out my camera in Rwanda when it’s not to photograph obviously touristy things like gorillas or monuments. I try not to stand out more than I have to (which is already a lot), and photographing something is a surefire way to set yourself apart from it – if it was a part of your normal reality, why would you want a picture? Some people seem to feel exploited by this, which they show by wagging a finger or shaking a head when they see a camera. Some try to exploit it for their own gain, like the Maasai in Tanzania who wait by the side of the road to pose enthusiastically for pictures and then demand money for them.

But my runs through the valley behind our house, and the families that have punctuated (and participated in) them, have been such a vibrant part of my everyday life for the past seven months, and they exemplify so much of why I have come to love Rwanda (and why it breaks my heart), that I couldn’t bear to go on my last one without taking back some way to remember them.

So, a little apprehensively, I brought my camera along. I hoped that because I had been a daily sight for these families for so long, they wouldn’t be suspicious or disapproving of my picture-taking, and luckily (I think), I was right. My camera-accompanied run elicited no wagging fingers or shaking heads, only smiles and rounding choruses of “bite” (pronounced “bee-tay,” kinyarwanda for “hi”) and “goodmorning,” the standard English greeting every child seems to learn and practice enthusiastically at all times of day.

Although I’m excited about returning to exercising at sea level (many months at 1500 meters has been good for my stamina but bad for my self esteem), and the Charles in the springtime definitely has a different kind of beauty, my morning runs through Urwego valley are one of the things I will miss most about Rwanda.

Click here for a slide show: http://picasaweb.google.com/nena.sanderson/ARunThroughTheValley?authkey=Gv1sRgCOyo-aDNvJzYHg#

The view to Lake KivuOur trip to southwest Rwanda to visit Nyungwe Forest marked my final weekend adventure in East Africa. Nyungwe is the third national park in Rwanda (we’ve already detailed our visit to the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park in the north and our safari at Akagera National Park in the east). It also happens to be one of the largest rainforests in Africa (perhaps the largest, depending on who you ask). Sadly, Nyungwe is just beginning to receive attention as a tourist destination (two new luxury lodges are opening in the next few months), so transportation (think crater-sized potholes) was more difficult and accommodations ($10/night doesn’t get you much, even in Rwanda) were more bare bones than at the other parks.

Hiking through the tea plantationNeither of these drawbacks, however, could diminish Nyungwe’s natural beauty. Monkeys and birds are the main attractions, with several hikes designed to allow visitors to explore the forest and track various primate species including chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, L’hoest monkeys, and more. On day one, we selected the “Waterfall Trail”, aptly named after the giant waterfall at the end of the trail. We hiked for two hours to find the waterfall – first through fields blanketed with tea plants (the short green bushes in the picture above) and then through the rainforest itself. I’ve seen a fair amount of waterfalls in my life, but this one was definitely the most powerful and impressive.

The waterfall Me and Nena beneath the waterfall

On day two, we rose at 4am so that we could set out in search of chimpanzees before they traveled too far from their overnight nests. One of the more amazing things about monkey tracking in Rwanda is what close tabs the park guides keep on the species that tourists can visit. Every morning, a handful of park rangers locate their assigned species and follow them movement throughout the day. They stay with the monkeys until dark, return to their lodging for some rest, and then head back out to where they left the monkeys before dawn the following morning. After a quick briefing and an hour long drive to the trailhead nearest the chimps, we had finally arrived.

Our first chimp sighting Chimps in a fig tree

After a short delay, the forest suddenly was alive with shrieking and howling. Our guides hurried us down a trail away from the noise – apparently these chimpanzees aren’t quite as habituated as the other monkeys we’d tracked. As a result, we had to settle for watching the chimps enjoy their morning breakfast several meters up in a group of fig trees. Although it wasn’t quite the amazing experience that standing face to face with gorillas was, it still offered another amazing opportunity to watch wild animals in their natural environment.

Check out the full album for more.

A Thursday in Kigali

March 24, 2010

I have been told that reading this blog makes our life in Rwanda sound like a series of amazing weekend adventures (which is is), but it’s true that we leave out a lot of the Monday-through-Friday stuff, which is, after all, what brought us here in the first place. So I decided to summarize for posterity all the mundane details of Thursday, March 4th, a very normal day in Kigali.


I woke up at 5:30 and went for a run in the valley. Among the usual bustle of morning activities, I encountered a car that had dared to brave the road after a night of rain and was stuck in six inches of mud (preventing any other cars from passing, not that they were likely to try), and a showdown between a boy and his cow who wasn’t ready to leave the comfort of his makeshift stall.

Running path (pictures courtesy of Zach)

Typical view on a morning run

After a quick shower and a tree-tomato smoothie, Jon, Lucy, Iris, and I waited for Alexandre (our driver), who predictably arrived at 7ish for our 6:45 pickup.  After dropping the rest of the group off at TechnoServe, Alexandre took me across town the the OCIR Cafe office (the Rwandan coffee regulatory board), where I spend most of my time. I was delayed further when we got stuck behind a pickup truck that was carrying no less than five cows and a boy. This was no special pickup truck (I would rate it on the small-to-average side of pickup trucks one typically sees driving around North Carolina), and its only alteration to accommodate this menagerie was a wooden bar that had been constructed a few feet above the bed to keep the cows from falling out when going around turns.

Finally at work, I spent a few hours finishing off a powerpoint presentation summarizing the buyer interviews I’ve been conducting, and then helped select candidates to interview for a job. We consulted a very old and yellow book of government policies to determine the proper protocol, and spent the next few hours combing through CVs and examining the stamps on applicants’ diplomas to determine whether they were authentic.

After selecting eight candidates for interviews, I came home for a late lunch and watched part of a replay of the Maryland-Duke game from the night before. Unfortunately, it’s fairly impossible to make it a whole morning without someone ruining the outcome of the game, so I knew enough to know that I’d rather watch the first half than the second.

Our living room

Back at work, I spent the afternoon speaking to one of the many NGOs who works with OCIR Cafe about a coffee roasting project and brainstorming what other NGOs or civically-minded buyers would make good partners in this project.

Unrelatedly, me in the background during a recent visit from the Chinese ambassador

At 5:30, I hopped on a moto back to the house. Since we hadn’t made it to the market that week, Jon, Lucy, Iris, and I pooled our leftover vegetables and made fresh pasta sauce and my new favorite drink – mint limeade made from freshly squeezed limes and mint I picked from our garden. The power went out exactly six times during the course of our cooking and eating, and since, unlike Jon and Lucy, I do not have a headlamp for such occasions, when the lights came back on, I looked down to find my white T-shirt covered in tomato sauce.

Motos vying for business; our garden

After dinner, our quiet evening consisted of a little more working, a short-but-violent thunderstorm, and an argument with our guard who decided to take a break from guarding the house for a while and seemed confused as to why we had locked him out (the guards at our new house are definitely no Frank and Patrick). In typical fashion, everyone in the house was in bed by 9.

The delinquent guard                        Our hill

The WSJ has put together a nice photo essay documenting the country’s progress over the past decade, which they published late last week.

As far as fact checking though, I’d note that I’ve never heard anyone in Rwanda refer to motorcycles as “boda-bodas”. That word is only used in Uganda, as far as I know.  We always called them “motos”, and it says “taxi-moto” right on their green vest, so I have to think that’s what they’re actually called. Makes you wonder where else WSJ journalists are exercising their creative license. Either way, there are some nice shots of Kigali and the rest of Rwanda. Enjoy!

Getting Around Kigali

March 21, 2010

[Note: This is a blog entry I wrote during my first few weeks in Kigali, which I’m finally getting around to posting now. Apologies for the lack of chronological discipline.]

Before I attempt to describe the more profound aspects of my experience, I thought it better to delve into a couple of the mundane details of life in Rwanda because it is often the array of minute little differences that define new situations as much as the few profound changes. Also, if past experience is any indication, the seemingly mundane idiosyncrasies that still require adjusting to may be what stand out most when I look back on these months further down the road. I always find transportation in foreign countries to be one of those fascinating details, perhaps because it’s the first thing you encounter when you step off the plane and your awareness is at its peak. Transportation knowledge, of course, is also necessary to answer all kinds of important questions, like ‘How do I get to work?’ and ‘What’s the best way to go to the grocery store?’.

Matatu aka Taxi

In Kigali, there is a wide array of transportation options at our disposal, from the authentic yet often tacky shared vans (called taxis by Rwandans, but known elsewhere in East Africa as matatus, which is what I’ll call them as well to reduce confusion between them and what we think of as taxis) to the familiar yet different taxis. Let’s start with the matatus, which are East Africa’s take on the minibus and the only real form of public transportation available (although I’m pretty sure they are privately run, so perhaps that’s a bit of a misnomer). They are definitely the people’s choice for transit, at least when walking isn’t an option. Squeezing into the cracked vinyl seats of a sweaty matatu evokes an almost stereotypical image of Africa. From the moment you step inside, you’re greeted by round, unblinking Rwandan eyes and whispers wondering why the muzungu is on board. That moment often stretches to minutes and potentially hours as matatus do not depart their station until every seat is full. I’m not sure what sort of cost-benefit analysis yielded this unusual equilibrium, but the matatu is not a mode of transportation for those in a rush. From the street, they’re easy to spot since they’re often decorated on the outside with delightfully tacky themes (I’ve seen Barack Obama, Manchester United, and T-Pain decorations among others), and at 180 Rwandan Francs per ride (about 30 cents), the price is right.

Taxi MotoThe next option is the moto – a green motorcycle taxi, usually driven by men with neon vests. They are ideal for those wanting a more personalized journey and a bit of fresh air (and, also, possibly my favorite Rwandan experience!). They tend to swarm around lost-looking foreigners, so I often find myself surrounded by a yellow and green sea of revving engines whenever I try to step off of a curb. This phenomenon makes it a fairly easy task to find an English/French-speaking driver who knows where you want to go and will take you for a reasonable price. It’s also one of my few regular interactions with local Rwandans, so I try to make the most of it (literally, the first words I learned in Kinyarwanda were ‘how much?’, ‘too expensive’, ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘straight’, and, most importantly, ‘stop’. The real adventure doesn’t begin until you get jump aboard (do you grab the driver around the waist and hang on for dear life or go Rwandan-style and nonchalantly lean back in the saddle without a care in the world?). After making that crucial decision (Rwandan-style, thank you very much), I usually spend the rest of the ride hanging onto my one-size-fits-none, unadjustable helmet wondering whether it’s protecting me or I’m actually protecting it. Still, a bit of a breeze during the humid nights here is delightful, and I feel a little less like a visitor to this strange land when I can pull back my visor and stare across the moonlit hills as the wind whips through my hair.

Taxi? I can't tell either.The last transportation option is the taxi, which is the word used to describe the car of anyone in your vicinity interested in making a quick buck when you need a ride home. Unlike the motos and matatus, which are very well-marked, there are no discernible features that distinguish the taxi cabs from the other poorly-maintained, early-1990s sedans that honk and weave their way around Kigali. Still, they’re perfect when you have a lot to carry or if you’re traveling in a large group. Plus, they’ve allowed me to hone my good-humored negotiation skills. Typically, it works like this: the driver will ask where you are going and then propose an outrageous fee (for example, $20 for a trip that shouldn’t be more than $5). In response, I usually laugh, cut that number by 75%, and inform him that I’m not interested in paying the muzungu price. At that point, most drivers will protest my characterization of their fee and then make a modest concession. If I’m lucky, this protest happens amid a group of drivers who will all nod in agreement – the solidarity of drivers here is impressive, even if it’s usually to their own detriment. Eventually, I’ll tell them that I made the same trip the day before and didn’t pay nearly that much. If I’m still unsuccessful, I’ll start to walk away in search of the next taxi, which nine times out of ten results in them accepting my initial offer. From there, things feel just like any other cab ride: lots of honking, music blasting from the speakers, and a general inability to find your destination. Fortunately, the fare is constant regardless of the distance traveled, so both the taxi driver and I presumably have the same incentive to get to where I need to go as quickly as possible. Maybe cab drivers in the States could learn a thing or two from the ones in Rwanda. Either way, transportation is usually cheap and relatively painless, which is wonderful. Still, I try to avoid taxis when possible given that much more inexpensive options exist and the fact that I feel like a fish in an aquarium whenever onlookers gather to stare through the taxi windows.

Regardless of the chosen mode of transportation, the variety of effective options symbolizes how far and how fast Rwanda has come in a very short time.

Goodbye Rwanda

March 15, 2010

After six wonderful months, my efforts to improve the income of Rwandan coffee farmers have come to an end, and I’ve now left the sun and clay of Kigali and returned the rain (and lots of it!) and pavement of Boston. Now that I’ve had a chance to adjust somewhat to life back in the developed world, I’ve been amazed at how many things about life here I previously took for granted. Here’s a list of ten wonderful things about being back home in the states (followed by ten things I’ll forever miss now that I’m no longer in Rwanda):

Great Things About Being Home

  1. The service industry (I’d forgotten that in some countries, meals could actually come out on the same day you ordered them)
  2. Reliable electricity
  3. Technology at work (two 17″ monitors and high-speed internet are a step up from running Excel analyses on a netbook during a power outage)
  4. Winter (despite my complaints about Boston, I enjoy watching seasons change and am glad to be able to walk to work without being soaked in sweat)
  5. Wandering the aisles of Whole Foods (who knew there were so many amazing kinds of produce in the world?!)
  6. Food delivery (you just dial some number, tell them want you want, and they bring it to you…for free!)
  7. The various small conveniences of life in a major American city (24/7 grocery stores, CVS, the local gym, and the fact that I can visit all three of them during the same evening without walking more than half a mile)
  8. Using my credit card (as much as I enjoyed carrying $100 bills around town)
  9. Catching up with all my friends who I haven’t seen in months
  10. Seeing my family

Things I Will Always Miss About Rwanda

  1. Motorcycle taxis (the fresh air, the convenience, the good natured way they always try to charge threes times more than what the price should be)
  2. Waking up each morning to birds chirping (and making lots of other sounds that I had no idea birds could make)
  3. The awe-inspiring natural beauty of the hilly Rwandan countryside
  4. Haggling over veggie prices and telling dozens of persistent Rwandans that I have “no job” to give them at Kimironko Market
  5. The manager at Papyrus and his suit that was at least four sizes too large
  6. Motorcycle taxis (seriously…)
  7. Learning to recognize all these crops (coffee, tea, cassava, beans, bananas) that I’d previously only seen in a grocery store or on a plate
  8. Sipping Rwandan tea while reading Bill Easterly’s latest rant about the failures of development under the shade of a banana tree
  9. Magana atanu!
  10. Living together with a handful of awesome, passionate, interesting, and fun volunteers that somehow made a certain house down a very steep, dirt road in East Africa feel like home.

Fear not, loyal readers (all 11 of you), there are still more posts to come. Nena has another month in Rwanda, and we’re both still weeks behind on posting about our latest adventures, so stay tuned!

If anyone is interested in trying out more delicious Rwandan coffee, Peet’s Coffee and Tea is currently doing a major promotion – the home page of their website is almost exclusively dedicated to Rwanda!

Check it out at: http://www.peets.com/

Like Stumptown, Peet’s is another higher end roaster who has developed a strong interest in Rwanda’s ascent into the specialty market and has a great relationship with TechnoServe. They’ve probably done as much as just about anyone to help get Rwanda’s name out to consumers – one of the Peet’s executives is even talking about coming to Rwanda to volunteer for a few months!

If you click here, you’ll find a cute story featuring a TechnoServe cooperative, as well as some rave customer reviews. My favorite quote is from Scott in California: “I didn’t know I could fall in love with a coffee but I fell for Rawanda Lake Kivu and so did all of my friends. I would make this coffee in my office and people would FIGHT for it. Seriously, if you are a coffee lover, this is the coffee for you.”

I wish I could speak so passionately about the taste of coffee – I have not managed to fall in love with a cup yet, but I have learned to sort of like the stuff, with enough milk and sugar that is. If you like coffee more than I do, order a bag online or stop by the Peet’s in Cambridge and ask them about their Rwandan collection!


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