Archive for June, 2009

Taste of Americana

Last night two of us were fortunate enough to attend a gathering of U.S. Embassy workers at the home of a U.S. Marine and his wife.  The group also included several students who are interning for various agencies or NGOs this summer.  While we have had one other opportunity to share a meal with Americans since we’ve been here, this “game night” was a breath of fresh air.

Because the three of us work primarily with Rwandans and live around Rwandans we rarely ever see Americans.  Basically, Monday through Friday we clock in, clock out, head home to make dinner, watch some footie on the telly, or maybe some BBC and Al Jazeera if we’re feeling adventurous  and then hit the hay.  Because we fail to have much contact outside each other and the few Rwandans in our offices it is quite nice when granted an opportunity to mingle with expats.  We enjoyed a great meal, followed by an opportunity to meet each other.

Instead of playing games I talked with a variety of middle-aged adults who have traveled all over Africa.  Most spoke about how great Rwanda was compared to other countries we could have ended up in.  Evidently Cape Town is great for tourists and has plenty to see.  Mental note on that.  And, apparently, Rwanda is cleaner than Kenya and way nicer than Madagascar, no matter how Dreamworks tries to dress it up.

Evidently, this is fake.

Evidently, this is fake.

My colleague played poker with part of the group while I conversed with several other people there.  I learned about their past travels, future interests, and how they ended up in Rwanda.  It was quite enjoyable, but I also found it interesting listening to how some workers were willing to give up some luxuries in America for the experience of being abroad.  One person commented how some Americans, for example, couldn’t live without having Target around, so – and I paraphrase – living somewhere like Africa was a challenge not everyone could meet.

The funny part about listening to someone who works in a U.S. Embassy talk about others who couldn’t “make it” in Rwanda is knowing that they work in a secure compound with U.S. Marines, while living in a great home with a guard, gardener, maid, and probably a local who will  shop for their groceries for them.  If you actually live and work in modest conditions, or at least conditions somewhat similar to those in Rwanda, your tune might not sound the same.  While I can’t complain too much about where we live, our transportation issues and working conditions are definitely on par with other Rwandans.  Give me Target seven days a week and tell me I can’t hack it, but I prefer to drink my water from the tap if I please, and not take malaria pills for three years.  God forbid I enjoy the comfort of air conditioning.

TLS loves Target and would encourage any corporate sponsorship

TLS loves Target and would encourage any corporate sponsorship

Target is convenient and clean and people wait in lines and help you if you require assistance.  Additionally, you don’t have to haggle with them over a price, or fear getting ripped off.  There’s a fine line between not being able to “make it” in a third world country and recognizing and enjoying the simple luxuries and advantages America provides.

After living overseas for several years it is easy for me to see how living in America is truly a blessing.  Sure, the U.S. has its own problems, but it still has no equal.  This trip to Africa has re-opened my eyes about how fortunate we are as Americans.  While I understand that working abroad and living abroad for extended periods of time might provide some with a sense of excitement or adventure, or maybe even street cred in Berkeley, I still fail to grasp the trade-off.  Don’t get me wrong, a temporary stint might be great, but there are things about America I would not trade.  For clarity, I don’t mean to imply the person I had the conversation with was down on America at all, but they were more than willing to forgo American pleasures and advantages for an extended portion of their life.  I simply question my desire to engage in the same life choice.

Listening to some of these comments came on the heels of a running conversation that started only two or three days ago between me and my two fellow students.  We started naming things we missed about the U.S.  If you are currently enjoying any of the things we’re missing be thankful.

Our growing list includes:

U.S. Department of Transportation, vehicle exhaust regulation, correct use of lines while waiting in a store and using common courtesy, doorstops, polite cell phone use, deodorant use, one common language, fast and reliable Internet, voice mail, proper use of email, drinking water from the tap, toilet paper at work, running water at work, paper towels at work, not allowing solicitors in your workplace, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, chicken (grilled and fried), Taco Bell, brownies, cold milk (2%), pancakes, bacon, peanut butter (non-0rganic), baby back ribs, bar-b-que, Chinese food, cheesecake, Oreos, Costco hot dogs, watermelon, orange juice, Quizno’s, X-Box, and Rock Band…

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Adnawr, Ilagik

We’ve been in our new home for a week now and we’ve been at our internship for about the same amount of time.  We’re finally getting used to catching the taxi buses and making our trek to the supermarket to pick up food on our way back home.  By the way, here’s a picture of our backyard from our balcony…

Note the barbed wire and broken glass along the top of the brick wall.

Note the barbed wire and broken glass along the top of the brick wall.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place but we have a growing number of problems in just the first week: we’ve lost power; I don’t have hot water in my shower; there’s no A/C; the Internet seems to be running on a 56K modem when it does work; either a dog barks or a guy screams like he’s dying every night around 9 or 10pm, making me wish for a dog-human murder-suicide; and the help still leaves our windows open so mosquitoes find their way in.  The mosquitoes seem to be some hybrid gnat/mosquito combination and enjoy doing flybys over your ear when you’re in bed.  The aggravating thing is they’re smaller than mosquitoes in the U.S., so they’re hard to spot.  The three of us have spent sleepless nights hunting for these “mini-mosquitoes.”  Fortunately, they don’t bite as often as their U.S. counterparts.

Far Side Comic

Far Side Comic

Minor details, of course.  What I’m really dreading is the day it rains when we’re heading to work at 6:30am.  Once we leave our nice apartment complex we walk directly onto a dirt/clay road and continue on that for a good five minutes and then a cobblestone hike for approximately three minutes before reaching our spot where bus taxis pick up passengers.  If it’s raining our clothes for work won’t be remotely presentable due to the orange clay road.  I’ll provide the gory details when that happens.

There are several topics I can touch on and I have actually started writing several at a time, but one thing stood out after a few conversations today.

Kigali, and probably Rwanda as a whole, is very backwards.  For instance, today we tried to open a bank account.  What a freakin’ headache.  We got out of our internship at 2pm and headed downtown with passports in hand so we could open accounts and then transfer money from the U.S.  We walked into one bank at 2:30 in the afternoon and we pulled three numbers: 544, 545, 546.  The next customer to be seen was 519 and there were at least 30 people sitting around.  Moving right along.  Next up, Bank of Kigali.

Looks can be deceiving

Looks can be deceiving.

It was supposed to be the most reputable and well-known bank in the city, and maybe in the country.  It definitely looked the nicest of the few we’ve been in.  We walked in and the place was busy, although not quite as much as the previous place.  After standing around not knowing where to go due to the lack of posted signs I stepped into an office and the gentleman was on the phone.  I knocked and we waved me in and pointed at the chair for me to sit.  I patiently waited as he finished one phone call.  Then he picked up and dialed another phone number and began another conversation.  While he was on the phone another representative poked his head in the doorway and brought some paperwork and a customer.  The gentleman finished his phone conversation and turned to the man who basically jumped in front of me.  He chatted for a minute and then signed some papers and they left.  The gentleman then got back on the phone and made another call only to find that his personal cell phone went off.  Then he hung up and started talking on the cell phone.  After showing me into the room he never acknowledged my presence, which was beyond bizarre and rude.   After he picked up the cell phone I simply got up to leave and head upstairs to look for help.  He immediately hung up the cell phone and freaked out wondering why I was leaving.  I explained we were trying to open a bank account and he showed us upstairs.

Now, this exercise of cell phones going off constantly in the work place and people interrupting wasn’t anything new.  It happens at our internship, as well, and even when we had previously tried to exchange U.S. dollars for Kigali francs.  At the supermarket where we frequently shop, people jump in line with their food and cut you in line like the building is on fire.  The same goes for each morning when we try to find a place on a taxi bus.  You need to wrestle and fight people for spots because no one gets in a line.  There definitely is a lack of courtesy and little concept of civility.

So, as I was saying, after I was put on “ignore” we went upstairs and sat in another room that was supposed to help us open an account.  No one acknowledged we were there.  Three bank workers were in the room and two were helping customers.  While waiting we thought we’d browse the newspapers on the table in front of us and found they were dated January 13th, 2009.  Seriously?  It might as well have been 1955.

What year is this?

What year is this?

Shortly after that discovery another customer comes into the room and the one worker who had no customer immediately took notice of him and called him over.  Expletive, expletive, expletive.  We inquired about why we were skipped and then tried the second worker who explained to us that the very last worker in the room was who we needed to deal with.  Evidently there is only one worker in the entire bank who opens new accounts – and his English wasn’t as good as we hoped.  After he finished with his customers he informed us we not only needed a passport, but we also needed to provide a developed photo of ourselves.  Who carries those around?  Sorry, I don’t have the latest family photo that would help me give my money to you.

Aren't we delightful?

Aren't we delightful?

Because we didn’t have a personal photo – a U.S. driver’s license doesn’t work – we left without an account, but the bank worker walked outside with us and tried to direct us to where we could get a photo taken.  No really.  It was like they had a racket going with the photo shop.  We wandered around looking for this mysterious photo shop, but were unsuccessful.  We eventually lost interest and we will probably recommend Western Union the next time you’re in Kigali.

Today was basically a microcosm of most of our experience here.  The way people do business and the way they conduct themselves is bizarre and a lot of it wouldn’t fly in America.  We’re getting used to it, but it’s still frustrating that things are either very complicated when they should be so simple, or people don’t seem to have any common sense.  Oh, and the next time you complain about the 15 minute wait when you’re out at Sizzler or Chili’s, quit whining and try a legit hour wait that follows you everywhere you eat in Kigali.  And don’t expect any complimentary cheese sticks when a lizard falls in your food, either.  Cheers.

-TLS

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Kigali, Rwanda Fail

Sign Fail

Get your hair done after tying up your horse and grabbing a beverage.

A nice bag for a young girl...

A nice bag for a young girl...

...until you read the English.

...until you read the English.

-TLS

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The Art of the Deal

As a foreign visitor in Kigali it is a requirement that you learn one thing and you learn it quickly upon your arrival.  If you don’t know how to haggle over the price of something, it’s best to start learning.  Nearly everything is negotiable here.  Unless it is specifically marked you can cut a deal and usually get a better price.  While traveling as an American with two other Americans in Kigali, we have found there are two, sometimes three prices.  1) The Kigali price 2) The foreigner price and 3) The Muzungu price.  Sometimes numbers two and three are the same, but they don’t have to be exclusive.  For those reading who are unaware what a Muzungu is they should know it is a word that means “white person” or “stranger.”  It has been defined to us by several Rwandans as “rich white person.”  If a seller sees a Muzungu then they often choose to raise their prices.

Flying off the shelves in Kigali

Flying off the shelves in Kigali

In order to not get ripped off you have to be aware of when you are being ripped off.  Easier said than done at times.  If something is not marked with a price or genuinely understood there is always room to cut a deal.  You just have to know when and how.  In America, you’re best off going to buy furniture or a car with shabby clothes because they either 1) leave you alone and don’t haggle you or 2) don’t jack up the price.  Here, as a Muzungu you can’t avoid it, but you must realize when you’re being hung out to dry.

In a variety of situations we’ve experienced wheeling and dealing.  When hailing a mototaxi the driver priced a ride at 10,000 francs (almost $18).  It was clear he knew the three of us were foreigners, but we knew that was an outrageous price and got the same ride for 1,000 francs.  Additionally, it helps to have situational awareness.  A separate time when the three of us were looking for mototaxi rides we approached three bikers and told them 800 francs is what we’d pay and the first turned it down and said 1,000.  Immediately we said no thanks and asked another and he agreed to 800 and after another two bikers showed up it became a shark feeding frenzy and we were the chum.  We found three rides for 800 francs because it became a buyer’s market for us and the first guy that turned us down realized he would lose business and lowered his price.  The Donald would be proud.

The Art of the Deal.

The Art of the Deal - Rwanda-style

While some things are very expensive in Kigali – particularity housing and Pringle’s…yes, I said Pringle’s.  They’re $7 a can here – not everything is astronomically priced.  Bread, for instance, is relatively cheap and delicious since it’s made fresh daily and locally.  However, as noted, housing is extremely expensive.  We’ve been told that we should blame NGOs and international developers.  The typical Rwandan can’t afford the expensive housing that is being developed in the city, and this statement is times infinity for those Rwandans in rural areas.

While dealing with our housing situation we ran into several locals who were smooth talkers.  One we will call Colonel Mustard.  As it was explained to us, Colonel Mustard was a “entrepreneur.”  He was a very nice guy, actually.  He was a former soldier in the military, but I’m unsure how he came to such prominence.  At the least he is a slum lord, considering he wanted to rent out a three bedroom apartment in the slums that smelled like urine, probably had some mold or asbestos growing, and, due to its overall sketchiness, it could conceivably have allowed us to wind up in a real-live version of the movie Hostel.

Living Life on the Edge

Living Life on the Edge

At the best, our friend the colonel is a slum lord who also runs a Blackwater private security operation and moves guns across borders.  In Kigali, “private security” guard banks and their roster is mostly ex-police or military.  He did run a security team because there were at least half a dozen security guards who sat outside on a truck while he was there.  Col. Mustard said he’d “fix it up” if we decided to move in to the apartment.  Imagine a nightmare episode of “Flip This House”  where the house is in disarray but a starry-eyed couple thinks they can turn a quick profit after they fix up a complete dump. Luckily we were not that couple and “fixing it up” was not in the cards.   There was no chance we’d stay there, even for $800 a month for the three of us.  I’m sure people have died in there – and not of natural causes, mind you.

After that terrible option, we eventually were able to move into something that was more than acceptable after spending a week in a hotel.  Finding housing located close to where we need to be for our internship, plus making it affordable and safe proved to be a nearly unreasonable task.  In the end, we dealt with a Rwandan who priced newly refurbished apartments for $1500 per month until he saw us and would only rent to us for three months instead of two.  In short, he wanted $4500 total instead of $3000.  It was clear he decided to give us the Muzungu price.  We “dealt” with him and countered with $1750 over two months and he changed his mind in a matter of 15 minutes.  We ended up turning down that chump after he tentatively accepted our counter-offer.  Between that apartment and a five bed, four bath half-mansion that proved to be too big we finally settled on a third option that we were shown at the last minute.  It required no haggling in the price and it was the best option we saw since arriving.  Having a place to call home is definitely a comforting feeling at this point.

In the famous words of Ryan Seacrest…

Muzungu, out.

– TLS

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