I’ve been in Rwanda for 11 days. I arrived in the evening on May 1st and the trip has been a whirlwind of new people, new experiences and new places ever since. I feel like simultaneously like I just got here and like I have been here forever.
To kick off my on-the-ground blogging from Kigali and surrounding areas, I want to tell you 11 things I have observed thus far.
1. Don’t speak too loudly
Most Rwandans are incredibly soft-spoken. I posted on Facebook the other day that it would be a lot easier to interview people if they spoke louder than a whisper. It’s very tricky to hear most people on the phone during an interview and I have quickly learned to lower my voice by several notches in the workplace. It’s not that anyone has said anything to me — people are too polite for that — but I feel garish and inappropriate. Which is funny, because I’m normally so loud.
2. Neither Hutu, nor Tutsi but Rwandan
It very inappropriate to ask a Rwandan if they are Tutsi or Hutu. For those who are unfamiliar with the details of the 1994 genocide, about 1 million people (or 10 per cent of the population) were killed in only a couple of months by Hutu extremists. The genocide progressed at a rate faster than the Holocaust. The targeted population were Tutsis and moderate Hutus. As part of the reconciliation process, there has been a great push to identify people as Rwandan, not by their group of either Hutu or Tutsi.
3. Chips, chips, chips
French fries are served on the side of just about every meal here. Buffet lunches are very popular. A buffet spread generally consists of chips, rice, beans, beef or chicken, a vegetable (cassava is common), bananas or plantains and beef soup that is poured over the plate like a gravy. There is a place near my office that serves buffet lunch for 1,000 Rwandan Francs, which is about $1.40 CDN.
4. Why didn’t I bring AfterBite?
Mosquitos normally aren’t into me. I can go through an entire Canadian summer with only a bite or two. Not so in Kigali. My poor, pasty legs are currently covered in angry welts thanks to my constant scratching. Fortunately my roommate Samantha brought AfterBite with her and is generously sharing it with me. I’m not even worried about malaria. I’m worried about scratching myself to the death.
5. Don’t fear the motos
Well you probably should fear the motos, at least a little bit. You are riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a strange man, wearing a helmet that probably doesn’t fit extremely well. But they’re essential transportation in this city. They will take you anywhere in the city, provided you can agree on a price beforehand and give an explanation in simple English terms, based on landmarks, where you want to go. A short trip in central Kigali will probably set you back 400-600 Francs, which is $1 CDN or less. I have heard rumours of rides for 300 Francs but I have yet to get a ride that cheap.
6. A little French goes a long way
The local language in Kigali is Kinyarwanda and the official language is English. But the official language only changed to English in 2008. As a result, there are many, many people in Kigali who speak perfect French and Kinyarwanda but only a smattering of English. Representative of the generational divide, I have met several six-year-olds who are happy to exchange pleasantries on their walk to school in English while their parent (if they’re even walking with one) smiles silently, unable to really participate. So far I have used French to chat with moto drivers, locals and even an interview source. My French isn’t great but it makes a big difference.
7. $4 for food, $31 for a bath towel
As my earlier comment on the lunch buffet alluded to, food and drink is fairly affordable in Kigali, especially by Canadian standards. But I’ve found that any kind of North American product or household item can be outrageously expensive. We went shopping at the Nakumatt, which is the big, shiny grocery store beloved by expats, and I found myself ruling out most groceries because I just couldn’t justify the price. Lots of goods are more expensive than home. That being said, I did spend 13,000 Francs ($20 CDN) on a jar of peanut butter because I need peanut butter to live. I didn’t do the exchange rate until after I got home.
8. Shop in the Kimironko Market
While groceries may be outrageously expensive in the grocery store, fresh (organic!) food is incredibly affordable in the local markets. I bought a kilogram of rice the other day for slightly more than a dollar. Avocados are about 15 cents. Fresh eggs are 10 cents each. My first trip to the market was sort of exhilarating. I had to squeeze down narrow aisles packed with sellers, fruits and vegetables piled high on either side, to make a purchase. Some haggling happens but a lot of the prices are set. Teenage boys run around trying to get you to hire them to be your vegetable porter; for 1000 Francs, my helper carried my groceries and translated when the vendor and I didn’t understand each other.
9. “Muzungu, muzungu!”
Children call you “muzungu,” which is Kinyarwanda for “white people,” a lot. They also love to run up and shake your hand and wish you good morning, which is pretty adorable. Adults rarely call out muzungu, but many do love to stare. My favourite thing is when we’re walking to work and we pass two people talking to each other. They will stop their conversation and turn around to stare at us. When you acknowledge their staring and say good morning in Kinyarwanda (“Mwaramutse”), they sometimes get embarrassed. I wear my sunglasses almost every where outside because it is mostly sunny but also because they give me a sense of privacy.
10. Never again
On Sunday we went on a rather long walk from our apartment in Kacyiru to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi. It was worth hiking the hills and taking a detour to get there. The memorial has 14 mass graves under which approximately 250,000 victims of the genocide have been reburied with dignity. Some of their names are engraved on a marble wall but many people are anonymous, unknown bodies. In the museum, the children’s room has big, beautiful portraits of young children with plaques below that say who they were, how old they were, and how they died. A two-year-old was smashed against a wall until he died. Another was burned alive in a church. Most were cut down with machetes.
11. People are people, who are good
My own stupidity this evening presented me with the perfect way to end this blog post.
After work today I stopped by a small, local supermarket on the way home. I bought some refreshments. I left my wallet sitting somewhere between the counter and the floor, where I had crouched down to pack the bottles into my backpack. I went home.
About two hours later I received an email informing me I had left my “handbag” at the grocery store below the Chinese restaurant (such a Rwandan way of phrasing it; people here speak in landmarks, not business names). The people who owned the grocery store found my wallet, went through it and found the letter that I carry with me that says I’m an intern journalist with the New Times, and called the newspaper to ask for my email to contact me.
When I got the email I thought it was spam at first, but then I realized I was missing my wallet. Panicked, I took a moto back to the grocery store where my wallet was waiting for me, perfectly in tact. Not a Franc missing. I thanked the grocery store owner, who just seemed pleased that I had gotten his email.
The older man waiting in line beside me smiled and said, “This is Rwanda.”