Dispatches from Kigali: Blink, Sniff and Sip

Blink: A cautionary tale about assumptions

Malcolm Gladwell wrote “Blink.” One theme he developed was that important signals from our environment create connections in our brains. When we get these signals again we make judgments, quick as a blink, that can be as sound as data-heavy judgments. But sometimes assumptions can derail a good blink.

I have the privilege of working with bright, motivated Rwandan scientists who speak and read English quite well, usually as their third or fourth language. Part of my project for the Ministry of Health involves comparing Rwandan documents to FDA regulations. To make this painstaking work easier I created a guide for comparing the documents quickly. OOPS! – I should have reread Blink first.  The problem? I assumed my team would blink on cue, that is, read and process the English text signals quickly because they were quite literate and because I wanted to meet a timeline. But their reading connections were forged years ago in Kinyarwanda, not English and for sure not in FDA-speak.

Our assumptions can derail a good blink and my recent experience is a red flag.  Looks like “assumption hygiene” will be part of my 2016 development plan!

This ‘n That

In America holding hands is important to lovers and parents with little kids. In Rwanda touching, slapping and holding hands is a bigger part of the social fabric and serves many purposes.

Customs in Rwanda-2

Not Business as Usual

Kigali is growing fast. There are lots of construction cranes, thousands of tiny family businesses, and lots of NGOs making big impacts. Sit in the lobby at the Ministry of Health and watch the constant stream of foreign consultants, academics and investors. I mentioned before that the Minister of Health wears a “hurry up” perfume and she urges everyone to inhale deeply. As Americans we shrug and call this corporate, dollar-driven business as usual. But it isn’t in Rwanda. A physician explained that the genocide in the 1990s destroyed Rwanda’s entire healthcare infrastructure. As citizens and healers they have deep civic, personal and professional reasons to rebuild everything fast. To get a whiff of this (and of the Minister’s perfume) watch her recent presentation to the NIH: David E. Barnes Global Health Lecture: Medical Research and Capacity Building for Development: The Experience of Rwanda. You won’t be disappointed. http://videocast.nih.gov/PastEvents.asp?c=152

 A preview of “reentry”

Reentry is when PULSE volunteers return home and have to adjust to how different things seem. I had a preview of reentry when I recently traveled to Portugal. Almost everything I experienced made me pause and reboot, like brighter indoor lights, having safe water and walking faster. I guess that’s expected. What I didn’t expect was to realize that some activities I have embraced in Kigali will smooth my reentry and enrich my life back in Chicago:

  • I’ve been socializing with ex-pats from every corner of the world (check out “Internations” at http://www.internations.org ). It’s amazing how few degrees of separation there are among us, and how frequently a snippet of conversation can improve our best ideas.
  • Journaling has been an incredibly efficient way to distill thoughts, gauge emotions and think through next steps.
  • In a culture that is not food-centered, bliss is redefined as that first sip of fresh brewed coffee in the morning and “life giving” now means a bag of incredibly aromatic coffee. An angel is someone who sends it all the way from the US.












  1. Great insights. I too ponder my reentry. That’s when we realize just how much we’ve changed. And I love the idea of journaling. Thanks for suggesting..

  2. So grateful to be able to experience Rwanda through you – even in glimpses and bits of thought. It makes my day every time I read one of your entries!

  3. I love reading your insights Uncle, it brings your side of the world into greater focus! So, how do I go about sending you coffee?

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