July 03

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Musings from Robin in Rwanda

Happy Independence Day to my fellow-Americans! Coincidentally, it is also a long holiday weekend here in Rwanda — both Independence Day and Liberation Day are celebrated on July 1st and 4th. I find myself unexpectedly in a hotel in Kigali this weekend as our house is not ready for us to move into as planned and the PIH Guest House was without water for several days. But the PULSE gene has taught us to make lemonade out of lemons so we’re using this time to get some much needed rest, leisurely explore Kigali, and help our colleague/friend move into her new digs!!

Since it’s a holiday weekend, this blog is less about the serious work I was sent here to do and more of a (mostly) light-hearted look at my day-to-day life and observations.

Introducing my PULSE colleagues: I am lucky to have two GSK colleagues, now friends, on assignments with me in Rwanda (Tamsin from Melbourne, Australia and Bridin from the UK via Belfast). They have literally been a godsend! When asked by PULSE if I had a preference for being placed with other PULSE volunteers or on my own, I said it really didn’t matter. While I am sure I would have been OK by myself, I think having them here has made a world of difference!

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It’s kind of like being in college all over again, when you’re thrown into a brand new, strange-to-you world and quickly form bonds that might otherwise take months or even years to build at home. We’ve been each other’s support as we get settled, exploring Kigali and pooling the bits of info we’ve uncovered that is key to life here — from getting SIM cards and finding an apartment (Bridin) to finding the 24 hour grocery, sorting out how/when to tip (not customary), being each other’s “back” as we learn to haggle for goods, sharing new phrases in Kinyarwandan, and most valuable, sharing day-to-day experiences, ups and downs, and realizing we are not alone!

A Young Team: There’s also the interesting fact that we are older (especially me), than most of our colleagues at our respective NGO’s (Tamsin and I are at PIH/IMB, Bridin at JHPIEGO, https://www.jhpiego.org/who-we-are/). It’s awesome hanging with the younger crowd — their passion, optimism, innovation and sense of adventure is infectious, not to mention their technological wizardry. I was affectionately told by a younger co-worker that it’s great to have “older” people on the team to balance that youthful passion with much-needed expertise. I refuse to take the statement as anything but a compliment!?!?

Cultural differences: There are many cultural differences that I will share as I discover them throughout my journey. I’ve learned that it is actually illegal to ask about someone’s ethnicity or to question, even casually, any aspect of the genocide. These laws represent an effort to bring Rwandans together as one people.

I’ve also noticed that there is always a warm handshake associated with even the most routine greetings and farewells. The handshake can also include a light hug or three kisses (alternating cheeks)–I’m still trying to discern where/when each is appropriate. From what I’ve observed, Rwandans tend to be very soft spoken — given I have similar tendencies, I may have found my people! I’m also struck by the many “green” aspects of Rwandan life (intentionally or not), for example, the ban on all plastic bags; the dual toilet flushing system (btw, every public and private bathroom I visited has been squeaky clean); and the very dim lighting found in stores, hotels, and homes — which poses a challenge to these over-50 eyes.

Food: A lot of people have asked me about the food in Rwanda. True to what I read, traditional Rwandan food is simple, flavorful and not spicy. Our meals at work are provided by PIH. Our breakfast usually consists of what Tamsin describes as “white bread and spread” — peanut butter, Nutella-like spread, strawberry preserves and margarine, accompanied by mild coffee, African tea (grown locally), hot milk, raw sugar, honey and fresh fruit.

Lunch and dinner are hearty meals, and similar in nature. Starches are abundant! We always have white rice, one to two other starches — potatoes, cassava, and/or matoke. Matoke is a national dish of green banana, sometimes mashed and cooked in a sauce with a variety of vegetables.

The buffet also usually includes a salad (with local avocado), a hot vegetable, beans, and a stewed meat. At the end of the buffet you can usually find a tomato-based, vegetable sauce/gravy to put on part or all of your food and always, always, fruit for dessert — local pineapples, bananas & passion fruit are the best!

Ironically, as part of my 2016 healthy new year’s resolution, I worked hard to greatly reduce white carbs from my diet and to introduce green smoothies. While I’ll continue to watch my intake, I’ve decided that the cardio involved in walking “the land of a thousand hills” is bound to make up for my new Rwandan diet — and I’m on the hunt for a capable blender! When in Rwanda . . . Below, you will see my typical breakfast, lunch/dinner as well as a pic of me on my way home from dinner in our rural village — no street lights:

An interesting note about water: Bottled water is served cold or warm (not hot). At first we thought we misunderstood when wait staff asked our preference, but we’ve learned that many Rwandans prefer their drinking water warm. I’m told it is the same with beer (wine is typically not the beverage of choice and many restaurants simply offer one red and one white wine by the glass).

Fashion:  So I asked a lot of questions about what to wear for work and play while in Rwanda. Expats advised: fairly casual, but conservative for women, no dresses/skirts above the knee, pants are OK, but never shorts, which are only for sport or schoolboys! It was suggested that I leave my best clothing at home and look for all cotton, unlined clothing and to avoid the “safari-style” unless I was actually planning on going on safari. Many also told me to bring a backpack and to be prepared to leave my clothes behind at the end of my assignment as the minerals in the water take a toll on clothing after just a few washings (and I might want the luggage space for souvenirs). I packed accordingly and brought flats to help navigate the many dirt roads.

Time will tell about the condition of my clothes after a few washings, and while this advice was really helpful, I found that most professional Rwandans at the NGO are very sharp, stylish dressers. I wish I had packed at least one pair of heels, a little more formal business attire and a more fashionable alternative to the backpack. The bright side is that I now have an excuse to buy some gorgeous Kitenge print pieces — not that I actually needed an excuse!

As a side note, I continue to be amazed that while I often arrive at my destination with feet and shoes covered in red dirt, my Rwandan colleagues arrive looking spit-polished and pristine!!

Well that’s all for me now. Rwandans traditionally observe Liberation Day with a mixture of solemn remembrances of the genocide and a celebration of the country’s progress. There are speeches, sporting events and concerts and we are considering which events are most appropriate for us to attend. Enjoy your July 4th BBQs –have some ribs, potato salad, greens, and a chilled glass of rose for me. Cheers!!