November 08

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A Visit from “Obamaland”, Part 1 —Robin in Rwanda #6

September means vacation season for most PULSE volunteers since it’s typically the half-way point in the assignment. It was no different for my PULSE friends in Rwanda.  Tamsin was off to Australia and Bridin to Ireland.  I hadn’t made any plans to go home, but my husband bought his tickets to Rwanda before I even left Philadelphia!  It seemed like September 20th would never get here.  Carlton arrived in mid afternoon, on a typically bright, sunny day.  Even though I was literally counting the days to his arrival, it wasn’t until I saw him that I realized how far down I was suppressing my home sickness.

I knew he was tired, but he insisted on not going to sleep to make it easier to transition to Rwanda time. So, we dropped his bags off and I set out to keep him going for a few more hours. I took him for a walk around Kiyovu, my Kigali neighborhood, so he could get a feel for the area and get his bearings. We stopped at a nearby shopping mall where he would be able to get a SIM card, activate his phone and find just about anything, including a 24 hour supermarket.

We ended the evening with a light dinner, cocktails and a spectacular view of Kigali at night at the Ubumwe Grande Hotel. High atop the city, the Ubumwe view offers the beauty of Kigali’s hills and twinkling lights but it doesn’t capture the beat of the city. That honor goes to what would become Carlton’s favorite local rooftop café at the Gloria Hotel, perfect as a shady perch for a cold beer and people watching.

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Kigali @ Night

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The Gloria Hotel

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People Watching

Carlton was here for three extremely short weeks. We were able to fit in a long weekend getaway to Stonetown,  Zanzibar, an amazing place which plunged us deep into history.  It is so different from anywhere we’d been before with its web of narrow alleys, centuries old buildings and mosques. We marveled at the unique architecture and design that reflects the history of the predominantly Muslim population.

As tourists, we were certainly able to relax and enjoy what Zanzibar has to offer.  On the one hand,  we were struck by our heart-wrenching visit to the old slave market where we learned of  the island’s major role in the slave trade. And on the other hand, we were surprised and warmed by the shouts of “Obama” and “Obama land” as we navigated Stonetown’s tiny streets, shops and restaurants.  People went out of their way to acknowledge us with these greetings reserved for African Americans (I guess we stood out amongst the other tourists). Yes, the greetings were often used to entice us into their shops, but just as often they were used as terms of appreciation and respect.  People stepped out of kitchens, and doorways to share in our collective pride that such a thing happened in America. We won’t soon forget Zanzibar.

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Other than Zanzibar, we stayed close to Kigali and Rwinkwavu (PIH/IMB’s rural headquarters in the Eastern Province of Rwanda). During and after Carlton’s visit, many people asked where we were going or where we went while he was here.  Did I take him to see the Gorillas, to Lake Kivu, to Nyungwe National Forest or for a safari in Akagera Park?  As I repeatedly answered “no”, I started to wonder if I had short-changed his visit in any way.  But then he reminded me why he came to Rwanda: first was to see me and second was to fulfill a dream and to experience part of Africa –a “slice of life”.

Over the past three plus months, he had heard about the people, places and things that color my everyday life here. Had we toured the country, it would have been awesome, but he would not have experienced my daily life.  And experience he did — from the amplified sounds of the daily calls to prayer intertwined with the live church band and choir to the roar of the moto taxis and the loud hum of the street vendors, Carlton experienced the soul of my little piece of Kigali. He was welcomed with the warm hospitality of the IMB family; made the weekly Kigali/Rwinkwavu commute; was drenched by the first rainstorms of the season; and marveled at the extraordinary views, high elevation and steep red dirt roads that make up my daily walk to work. He endured the persistent black-outs in Kigali and constant internet struggles everywhere. He delighted in a $1.25 shave and haircut from a village barber and, of course indulged in a couple of rounds of golf Kigali-style!

We shared long chats with my Rwinkwavu roommate, Akiiki, a doctor from Uganda and lunched with the IMB staff where he had a chance to meet Dr. Alex Coutinho, IMB’s  inspirational leader and Executive Director. We even got to catch-up with my GSK friends upon their return from vacation.

Carlton happily volunteered to help out while visiting the Rwinkwavu campus. Edward Shyaka, District Program Director for Kayonza District asked him to conduct an assessment of renovations and repairs needed for staff and visitor housing in preparation for budget recommendations. Abdul, the Maintenance Officer, was Carlton’s guide and shared his insights into local housing systems, materials and challenges.  For those who know Carlton, you know this is the stuff that excites him!

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Carlton’s visit helped me realize that I had adjusted quite well to life in Rwanda – I had a rhythm going. It wasn’t until I started to introduce him to the ways and whys of everyday life that I remembered how different everything was for me at first.  It was fun seeing Rwanda again for the first time through his eyes!!