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So sorry I have not posted in a long time! I have been here for almost 6 weeks, and it still feels like I have been here for much longer. Moto-taxi update: Now hands-free, however learned the hard way that you are supposed to mount from the left, and now have a brightly colored burn on my leg from the exhaust pipe to prove it. To add insult to injury, the other day while on a moto-taxi I heard the people in the car next to me talking about a mzungu (me) and remarking on the state of my motorcycle burn/mosquito bitten legs. I just turned and shrugged and made a face, hoping the acknowledgement that I too think the state of my lower appendages is gross would offer them some relief. I have been enjoying getting to know Kigali these past few weeks. I’m slowly trying to add Kinyarwanda words to my vocabulary, and I find that the locals really appreciate my attempts to say, “Good afternoon, how are you?”. I have developed a minor addiction here: having clothes made. I just dropped off some psychedelic material at albert’s shop and he is going to make a blazer out of it. To say wearing this blazer would be a statement, would be an understatement. Yet my master plan is to wear this African attire when on the job hunt this fall to make me more memorable. (wow say that 5 times fast).
A few weeks ago I was able to get out of the city and visited the Volcano National Park where the mountain gorillas live. It was a beautiful drive through the country side, followed by a short walk through some scenic potato fields. Though I requested to be in the hard core hiking group, something about my physique lead the guide to place me with the group of senior citizens. So, after a short distance from the 4 wheel drive vehicles that drove us to the base of the volcano, I was among a family of gorillas. It was an incredible experience! All that separated me from a 200 kilo silverback was a slight man with a machete. However, the gorillas are so used to humans that they basically ignore your presence. The group we observed was lead by a 23 year old silverback named Charles, and there was also a 2 week old new born still clinging to its mother. It was another national geographic dream fulfilled, and also a relief to see that such extreme efforts are being made to repopulate the mountain gorillas that were driven by poachers to an endangered status.
As the weeks have gone by, I have been getting used to juggling work at 3 different banks and adjusting to the specific culture at each one. Prior to coming here, I was interested in the overlap between healthcare delivery and training and microfinance. One of my MFIs, Urwego, provides non-financial services to its clients such as training in family planning, healthcare awareness, and business development. During the borrower’s group meetings, the loan officer holds a 30 min training session on one of these topics, and the curriculum builds each week. I attended a meeting that introduced the topic of HIV/AIDS, and why it was important to be aware of how this disease spreads and how it can effect one’s family and business. My next blog post for the kiva website will discuss this topic of the overlap between health and other non-financial services and the microfinance lending model. If you’d like to read more about it check it out! I’ll paste the link on here once it’s been crafted.
Another interesting experience I have had was going into the field this week to meet the rice farmers that are going to receive the new agricultural loan product of one of the banks. For me, it was a lesson in the practical challenges associated with doing development in rural areas. I was accompanying my kiva coordinator because we were to interview the borrowers for the kiva website, take their photos, and have them sign loan contracts. With 24 borrowers to interview, we were expecting this alone to take several hours (especially since I would be of no use in this department because I do not speak Kinyarwanda). However, when the meetings started and it came time to sign the contracts, the farmers were not happy with some of the terms. Specifically, they were going to be charged interest on all the money and supplies the bank was lending them, including fertilizer. The farmers DO need this loan because the Rwandan government just decided to not give them free credit, however just before this policy change they gave them fertilizer. Therefore, the farmers did not feel they should have to pay interest on an input they had already been given for free. Many hours later, they finally came to an agreement and although we did not have enough time to get all the contracts signed, we will made progress!
Half way through my time here, I think I have finally adjusted. Oddly, I can tell I have settled into a place when I am relaxed enough to implement my daily nap routine. When I first got here, I was too over stimulated to crave naps. However, my appetite for sleeping is back in full force and I usually manage to get them in between work and dinner. Also, my mid-way reflections have enlightened me to the fact that I have not documented enough of normal day life. For example, those of you that know me well are aware of my affinity for avocados. OMG THEY ARE HUGE AND AWESOME HERE. One guy actually said to me I should rent a room in his house and I wasn’t even considering this until he said he has an avo tree in his back yard. However, after looking at the mound of artifacts I have accumulated here, I voted nay on moving. With that aside, my new mission is to do smaller, more frequent updates on here. In my attempts to be less of an obvious mzungu, I have been reluctant to take pictures everywhere I go. However, I have decided that I must take more pictures! Let’s see if I stick to it!
i cannot believe i have only been in rwanda for 2 weeks. it seems as though i have been here for much longer- i suppose because everything is radically different, and there remains little evidence of my past life other than the comfort movies (of the vampire variety) that refuse to exit my nightly falling-asleep routine.
i have enjoyed getting to know the people living at my hostel. it’s a good combination of long-term dwellers such as myself and travelers passing through for a few nights. there is a strong expat community in kigali, and one never wants for something to do. so far every monday night i have attended trivia night at an amazing pizza restaurant on a hill overlooking the city. i also met a nice american couple and tagged along with them to nyungwe national park this past weekend. it was a beautiful (and bumpy) ride through the rwandan countryside, and i enjoyed observing the non-urban aspect of rwandan culture. we had a great time hiking and then drove to the border of the congo (just to look at it don’t so worry mom) for a delightful dinner and some vin rouge.
on the way home we stopped the murambi genocide memorial. the memorial is located in one of the most beautiful settings i have ever seen. this dissonance between the beauty of the location and the horror of what took place there truly aligns with the confusion and disbelief i have so far felt towards the 1994 genocide. it is in this valley surrounded by rolling hills that around 30,000 victims of the genocide were trapped, murdered, and buried in mass graves. after being exposed to hundreds of bodies preserved by limestone, some still wearing clothes, i was once again reminded of the dark past and yet amazing progress of this country.
i am slowly but surely finding my stride at the three mfis i have been assigned to work with. one challenge has been the language barrier. the primary languages here are kinyarwanda and french. i am relishing the opportunity to learn some kinyarwanda and improve my french, and even spent the entire hike practicing my french with my french canadian counterpart (and new friend), caroline. merci encore caroline si tu es en train de lire!
i am enjoying learning about the new loan products being offered at the banks and coming face to face with some of the challenges that the borrowers and microfinance institutions encounter. for example, the ceo of one bank said he wishes to include a healthcare loan product or training service to their borrowers because rice farmers are suffering from malaria and not able to repay their loans. another bank was about to launch an agricultural loan to farmers, however recent flooding has resulted in these farmers not being able to obtain a loan. they are now developing a new product for rice farmers to accommodate the increased demand for credit after the rwandan government retracted its free credit offerings in january.
with each week i hope to integrate myself further into the work happening at these mfis and will take every opportunity i can to get out into the field and meet the borrowers!
this weekend i am going on a camping safari with some hostel folks which i am looking forward to! i challenge the mosquitoes of rwanda to find any real estate on my skin that has yet to be bitten.
for my most devoted fans*, i have written a blog entry on the kiva “stories from the field” blog and invite you to read more about my initial impressions of rwanda and also check out what my fellow fellows have been blogging about!
a la prochain…
*mom+those of you i have bribed to read this
opening scene: dramatic departure. after my name eluded the airline’s passenger database for 45 minutes, i scurried to my gate and had the honor of being the second to last person on the plane! once i heartlessly claimed my window seat from a sweet old lady that was occupying it, i took my “sleeping aids” and was on my way to ethiopia. on my third and final flight, i had a lovely conversation with a friendly ugandan t-shirt designer named jimmy, and before i knew it i had landed in kigali! who knew a stranger holding a sign with my name on it would be one of the most comforting things i have ever experienced? note to self: employ friends and family to greet me with a sign for all future arrivals.
my hostel is a quaint establishment overlooking the valleys and hills of kigali. i enjoy the communal feel and have met very lovely people so far! looks like this will be home for the next three months! i have two days before starting my work as a fellow, so i thought i would take this opportunity to explore the city. upon the suggestion of some of my new friends from the hostel, i hired a motorcycle taxi to take me into town to get some shopping done. i can only imagine how entertaining it was for locals to see me clutching the driver with one hand and holding my newly procured ginormous fluffy pillow in the other. however, despite the oversized helmet that kept falling over my eyes, i did manage to notice that nobody else holds onto the driver. oops.
on a much more serious note, i also decided to visit the genocide memorial center in order to pay tribute to the victims of the genocide and understand how rwanda has risen out of its dark past towards a bright future. in retrospect, i am glad that i visited the memorial alone as i spent the rest of the afternoon quietly reflecting on the violence that took place less than two decades ago. ironically, what snapped me out of my silent funk, was stepping into the common room to hear two of my fellow hostel dwellers debating whether the official figure of recognized lives lost is 800,000 or 1 million. the two individuals happen to work at the memorial i had just visited.they were creating a presentation to educate students on the genocide. it was at this moment i truly felt the ubiquity of the genocide and that my exposure to this topic will not be limited to my visit to the memorial. however, unlike the memorial visit, hearing and being a part of the conversation about creating awareness instilled me with feelings of hope.
as i write this post at 4 am i suspect that i am still suffering from jetlag-but i welcome this opportunity to update everyone on my first official day in kigali 🙂 tomorrow a new friend is taking me for some authentic rwandan food and i will prepare for my first day of work!
thanks to everyone for the gchats, facebooks, and skypes! miss you already