Dispatches From Kigali: What is Luck? And is that the right question?

I could write about science and the higher purpose I am serving in Kigali, but let’s focus on the really important stuff.


Recently a Rwandan junior team member gave me a document to look at along with a request from a senior stakeholder for an opinion.  This was a distraction and really inconvenient.  However, I discovered that the document contained information, unrelated to the request, that met a different and urgent need.

In the last 3 months several unexpected, good things have happened to me. People might say they happened for a reason or maybe I’m just lucky. I have a different view now. In coming to Kigali I left behind all of my tailor-made comforts, conveniences and work supports. It would have been hard to even notice luck back in Chicago.  In Kigali anything helpful really stands out –  like a small courtesy, gentle social guidance or a working ATM.

Low salt take-out
A couple of weeks ago I moved into a new house with 3 other PULSE people. We decided to celebrate with some Chinese take-out. When our order came the bag contained a re-used water bottle containing about 2 ounces of soy sauce (I hoped).  This waste-not-want-not approach seems common in Kigali and is becoming more comfortable to me.  I may have a big adjustment  when I return to the US.

Soy Sauce- I hope

Now I get it.
When driving with 3 Rwandan friends one of them pointed out the Parliament building and the preserved marks of recent wartime gunfire. I asked a benignly worded question about the genocide in the 1990s. They answered but I wasn’t prepared for the instant and complete change that came over them. Many people from Rwanda who are about 25 or older recall overwhelming terror and loss; some have visible scars. The very next day I went with one of my PULSE house-mates to the Rwandan Genocide Museum. This national tragedy has features all its own and the museum and memorial offer moving accounts and profound warning. Catch Christos Nicolaou’s terrific blog and pictures about this museum.  https://gskpulsevolunteers.com/2015/08/12/what-a-weekend/

And that’s why I need an African house mate

I have spent most of my life trying to give the right answers to questions. But what about asking the right question? Last week a Rwandan colleague called to say he was coming over to the house. I told my PULSE house mate, who also comes from Africa, and I asked: “Why does he want to come over?” My house mate explained that in Africa the custom is to expect such visits and to be welcoming whenever the occasion comes up. “Why” is the wrong question. The right question is “Do I have enough food to offer a meal?”

It’s how you ask the right question
Ever have someone answer your question literally?  Our housekeeper/gardener was sitting at dinner with me and I asked if he heard the two cats fighting late the night before.

HK: Yes?
J: The cats.  How do you call them?
HK: Yes?
HK: (His eyes lit up.)
J: OK- so what do you call cats?
HK: Cats

Actually, in Kinyarwanda they are “injangwe.” He was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.  The fix is simple, really.   Next time I’ll show a little respect and ask in Kinyarwanda.


  1. Way to go with the flow. I laughed out loud. Glad you see the blessings amid the disfunction. Perhaps that is the best souvenir you will bring back to the states.

    1. JIM,


      BE SAFE,


  2. Jim, Great blog. I loved the story. It brought to life the challenges of third world living. You will bring so much back to the US:)

  3. Thanks for sharing, Jim. Great post…..thanks for giving us perspective! These reminders are great for the soul!

  4. Thanks for sharing Jim. What an amazing experience to learn from other cultures and appreciate the little things in life.

  5. Jim,
    Real life situations that really make you think. You are experiencing things now that you would not experience on a random vacation trip to Africa. Keep the insight coming my friend.
    Take Care,

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