Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lucky Seat

Do know how exciting it is when you get a seat on a bus in Rwanda and only your thighs and shoulders and elbows are involuntarily pressed up against at least two other people? And your neighbors elbows are not, in fact, poking against your side? They are busy texting. And for some odd reason there's plenty of leg room. Perhaps the windows are left open because there are not sensitive souls who don't like wind.

You feel even more insanely lucky and privileged if you get a window seat on a sunny day and the person who strikes up a conversation next to you is genuinely interesting. "Where are you from? America?" I am asked on such a day when the extra leg room and lack of infants makes me want to answer. I say, "Israel" because those conversations are more interesting. And I get the usual, "Oh, so you believe in Jesus Christ?" "No," I answer, waiting for the fellow passenger's unbelieving laugh and "but he (He?) was from Israel!" On one particular extra-leg-room and open window day, a Sunday morning when most people were at church, the girl politely nodded to my answer and asked what Jews believed in. I told her that, officially, according to religious Jews and tradition, we believe in one God and the eventual coming of Messiah when there is peace on earth. "So you believe in God?" I told "sometimes" but that the official, or at least easier, line for Jews Incorporated was Yes.

She asked if I knew what Muslims believed in, and I said I was pretty sure they believe Jesus was a prophet, though definitely not the son of God. Her openness throughout the conversation was impressive. "What do most Jews in Israel believe?" I told her that some did not believe in God. "Oh, so they believe in science - they are scientists, like me," she said, laughing. "What is your religion?" I asked, and she replied that she was a religious Christian, but that she wanted to learn about all the religions in the world, because it was important to be knowledgeable about the world. We exchanged numbers before she hopped off near the Kigali Institute of Education where she is studying something sciencey. Specifically, something Chemistryish.

Comfort-on-bus-wise, the biggest lottery win of all is if you are the lucky someone to get - and this is absolutely huge - the front-row window seat. Laws mean they cannot stuff in more people than the number of front-row seats, so you buckle up (also required in the law) and feel like your friend is driving you home, if your friend likes really really really loud radio. These are incredibly competitive seats to get, the airy, luxurious room literally protected by Rwandan laws despite the Capitalist urge to stuff another five people in this space reserved for the honorary bus royalty of the hour.

When leaving Rwanda, do you know how long it takes you to forget how awesome leg room is and open windows and not touching anyone at all on a bus? And there's the specialness in many developed countries of your fellow travelmate's polite shift in the direction of the window when you sit down on the isle seat - that half-a-centimeter shift your fellow customer gives you, sometimes only a symbolic nod to show s/he is literally or in spirit assuring your minimal personal space is secured to assure minimal potential awkwardness. The time it takes to forget how awesome isles are? There are no isles on Rwandan buses so when you need to get off exactly ten other people need to either get off the bus or pretend they are small enough to let you pass them by even though the rows of "seats" are about one or two feet apart. Sometimes I look at an especially large passenger with a look of "you have absolutely got to be kidding me if you think I can squeeze by you on absolutely no extra space" and they give you a look back of "This is your particular problem, which I, to, will need to face at my stop, when I am going to get the same look I'm giving you now."

All of the joys of space on public transport take about five minutes to forget about on an inter-city Egged bus in Israel - absolutely phenomenally comfortable buses by even American and British experiences. You get on the bus, and stretch out your legs in the isle, sigh in happiness, and then the mundane nature of transport takes over you, and I tried - I really tried to appreciate the comfort. But I couldn't. It was just another bus.

The ups and downs of the place you get on a desperately uncomfortable bus has it's perks. It is an absolutely inflated happiness, magnified by fantastic views only found in Rwanda.

A flatly perfect and uneventful bus ride is still preferable. But I suppose I will never get back the rush of getting the front seat.

Kigali City has introduced modern buses - the kind with isles where most of the customers stand up and need to not fall down by holding on to the worst invention the developed, Euro-centric world has offered: plastic loop thingies created for giants. Short people hold on with their arms completes outstretched, the double-jointed among us feeling their elbows about to pop out of their sockets, occasionally a sharp bus turn swinging our bodies in all directions, forcing us to profusely apologize for being short, before knocking over someone's coffee and rushing off the bus, strangely missing the types of buses where everyone sits.

Those are the buses Kigali City has introduced. The standing room does seem to make much more sense than sitting in discomfort. Luckily, nobody has hot drinks on public transport in Rwanda.

No one has quite figured out how to change the electronic moving text that tells us where the bus is coming from, going, and stopping. It's pretty fancy electronic boards, and Kigali has an international vibe when Arabic, Mandarin, English, and other languages I don't recognize slide across the buses side, that could say anything, really.

Maybe eventually numbers will be used.

And everyone will forget about the days when sitting like sardines was the only option, and a front-row seats by the window was a cause for private, contemplative celebration.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moving Ambiance

I have left Rwanda for other adventures, but have a fantastic backlog of wonders.

Starting with some sad news.

There is a cafe called Chocola. Er, "Shokola." It is fancy, expensive, but a place I wholeheartedly object to calling a "Mzungu" place, and not only because over half the customers aren't. I like to think of it as art. Universal Art. Every light, window, bookshelf, and chair is placed perfectly, with the colors and artwork and counters and cookies all lined up in a way that makes you feel privileged to be able to sit on the comfy chairs surrounded by leafy greens, tropical birds, and a perfect playlist. You sigh and don't mind waiting the usual two hours it takes for food to be served in Rwanda. Food served by waiters in fantastically bright colored – but not to brightly colored because that wouldn't mesh well with the opaque color tone – uniforms.

And they have great ginger cookies.

The original branch in Kiyovu, however, is residential, and new zoning laws mean that ShoKola needed to go - at least in the upscale residential neighborhood it is found in.

Back in Israel, getting off the plain to Obama's voice on a Palestinian state and the a female head of the Labor party being elected, most of the protest tents which mostly concerned housing and rent prices are gone. But the memory of zoning laws in Kigali, and zoning laws of the past in Israel, spring to mind as I inquire on rent prices.

Zoning laws that limit where people can sell things, including selling atmosphere and ambiance, seems unfare to everyone who needs to move – both residents moving away from new commercial zones and business owners moving away from new residential areas. Laws that limit noise seem to be a lot more effective. Or, if those are laws are difficult to enforce – at least it means cheaper appartments from landlords that are willing to stay put in a commercial area. Plus businesses get loads of customers who live nearby, an impossibility with seperate zone. This, in general, generates income in the town, and means landlords have an easier time finding tenants, even if their rent is lower. A lot of new immigrants to Israel from developed countries (me eleven years ago) complain about the lack of "city planning" in Jerusalem - apartments seem to be on top of loud bars and I can't tell you how many awkward "hellos" I exchange with lawyers unlocking their fancy glass doors as I leave my apartment, next door, in pajamas to grab the paper. But there is always a job to be found right next to your home and always a beer to buy right under your nose - so things are hectic, but at least never stuck in one place. You literally save over two hours of commuting for a lot of jobs, and those two hours can mean a lot of you are a student, have another side business, want to spend time volunteering and getting to know your neighbors, or just like sleeping in.

I suppose warm cozy Kigali coffee and cookie feelings - on comfy couches (I'm on a role) can be shifted to the appropriate zones, so I'm sure the other Shokola, in a commercial zone, will do just fine. Maybe the zoning laws will increase property value and, somehow, income will indirectly go up as a result. I just hope the strict zoning laws are not widening the gap between what people make and what they can afford to pay in rent.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The other Rubona

I spent this weekend in Gisenyi, specifically in the other Rubona in Rwanda, the one that appears on the map. I walked passed the Bralima brewery where Primus beer is brewed, and a half hour leisurely walk later I came upon little kids in a pile of blue, a meter high, on the side of the road leading to the center of town. I squinted, because I need new glasses, and crossed the street to see blue Primus wrappers, meters high. They lay a midst broken Primus bottle glass that the kids were walking on, barefoot, collecting the glass in bags.

I don't know the story behind this. It was a Sunday, so maybe the kids go to school. But I really wish they had shoes.

The area is an odd combination of mud houses and budding mansions. In Kigali you see this to, but Kigali has defined neighborhoods with more mansions, and so many houses, often seemingly on top of each other, that the difference seems less stark to an outsider. The store fronts are also an interesting combination of newly built store strips with decorative pillars and older metal shacks. All-metal shacks is actually nicer than Rwamagana District shops, which are almost all mud and stone except the roofs. Metal's expensive.

Speaking of expensive metal. I met up with a VTC student in Kigali during vacation. He is from Kigali and in Rwamagana District's Rubona to study because the VTC is public and cheaper here. The house he lives in was having it's metal roof, which by law must be metal in Rwanda, painted red and the windows filled in with glass, two other characteristics required in local Kigali law. The cost of doing all of this was less than being fined, though there are certainly many who have yet to fulfill these requirements.

Ok, back to the other Rubona.

I saw a couple with matching outfits. It was. Urgh. Well, if they are on their honeymoon or something I suppose I will allow it. One very vibrant green material with flowers and swirly stems was cut in half and made into a tastefully tailored shirt and shirt with a matching head piece. The other half went towards her beau or husband's also, on it's own, lovely tailored shirt. And they walked down the street, smiling, holding bands, enjoying the moments of sunshine. I saw them multiple times all over the city, always holding hands in a serene stroll down the beach, around the shops and market, and past the forestry hills. Which also matched their outfits.

I have seen mothers and children wear matching outfits, but this is the first matchy matchy couple I have seen in Rwanda.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Numeracy, Chocolate and Cheese

In the market in Jerusalem, I was always impressed by the insanely quick yet accurate deducing of change by sellers. You give your veggies to be weight and within miliseconds you get the price and then the precise change so much quicker than a permanent store. After doing this for years I could figure out, pretty accurately, the price of the vegetables I bought simply by gauging the weight in my hands - it usually matched up to the price they gave me, and I would mentally gleefully squeal with excitement and mentally jump up and down when I was dead on. Based on this, I assume the price was pretty accurately and quickly deduced as well.

In Rwanda, I often stand there, hands on counter, for a minute or so, waiting to hear the price, as the store keeper counts, out loud, "one hundred," pointing to one item that is one hundred francs, "two hundred, three hundred, four hundred," pointing to another item that is three hundred francs, "five hundred" for another one-hundreder. It takes time, and sometimes they have to count again if they loose track. I have seen some need to write out seemingly simple arithmetic, such as dividing 1500 into three - something I assumed everyone did in your head.

Other times the prices seem a bit off from a marketing perspective, though there could actually be logic behind it. A 500 gram wheel of cheese cost 1,500 francs. I asked how much it would be if they cut it in half. They said 700 francs. You would think buying things less in bulk would make the price go up. I asked how much half of the half would be, and they said 300 francs. Perhaps people that want less can afford less, but I was tempted to ask for four halfs of cheese, and get a 300 franc discount. (I didn't. I didn't need 500 grams of cheese.) At another shop, 33 grams of chocolate cost 300 francs, but a 100 gram bar cost 1000 francs. Even at Bourbon, the swanky upscale expat location for real coffee, a grande cafe au lait, which is "freshly brewed Rwandan Coffee with steamed milk foam" costs 1,500 francs, yet a "freshly brewed Rwandan Coffee" grande is 1,200 and a separate order of "steamed milk" is 200, for a total of 1,400 francs. At least it was a few months ago - they raised the price of milk by 100 francs to make it the same. This is all being terribly nit-picky, I know - this happens in stores across all lands. But I see more of this than I did in Israel.

When asking small business owners what their profit and revenue are, I rarely get an answer. I am told the price they pay for food for themselves, their children, the store they run, rent for home and store and electricity - all in one figure, all mashed together. They know how much they spend a month, sort of, and maybe how much money in coins is found in their basket at the end of the day. Everyone, though, seems to pay the same 4, 000 monthly francs in taxes. "Is there some sort of flat tax in Rwanda?" I asked someone in Kigali - a university student in business with excellent numeracy. "No, if you do not make any profit, you are not supposed to pay taxes." I am not sure how true this is, but it could very well be that many small business owners simply end up paying a flat tax because they do not keep books. This is the price they pay for limited numeracy - a flat tax and never quite knowing if running the business makes sense.

Don't get me wrong - these aren't exactly the cream of the crop on the businesses world. Or even the average. The lady that told me the price of the cheese often falls asleep behind the register. Come to think of it, so does the lady who takes the longest in Rubona to give me a price. They are exhausted, perhaps. And in the better run businesses, you see the difference - prices are figured out faster and people know their revenue and profit. Sometimes siblings study accounting in high school while their sisters (usually sisters) run the shop. Kids are learning math at a fast pace, and I imagine, in another ten years, prices will makes sense, profits will be known, and taxes will be proportional to profits.

But for now, I stick to 300 francs chocolate bars and 1/4 of a wheel of cheese.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Art and other practical skills

It's the time of year when students in Senior 5 at ASYV and students at the vocational school down the road are thinking about what and where they want to be when they grow up.

Mark, the student who is living in Rubona, originally from Kigali, is excited about starting his internship in catering. He didn't quite make it into the Serena, the coveted fancy shmantzy hotel that expats go to all over the developing world because they can afford to stay there, or because they want to drink a beer near the pool and feel like they're in LA. He is starting an internship at a smaller hotel in Kigali, where he will be able to get experience in the hotel business outside of the kitchen, something that might not have been the case at Serena.

Florence, who is studying masonry at the same VTC, and who is sort of friends with Mark, is working hard to pay her school fees. She worked in the VTC's kiosk three weeks during the break, and made a sad 10,000 francs (less than $20). Florence walks over ten kilometers a day to study at the VTC, and she also walked this to work during the vacation. The kiosk, during the vacation, was frequented by elementary school students whose parents pay for them to get extra classes taught by teachers. Summer school. I drank some tea with her, and politely finished the whole cup, despite the insane amount of sugar she, like all Rwandans, put in their tea. How do they make all the sugar melt? Isn't there some limit to the percentage of sugar in the water that will still dissolve? This super-sugary taste is fine in spicy Masala tea, but that hasn't quite made it to the rural areas, though is common is swankier places in Kigali. Like in Serena. After the first sip of Florence's tea I exclaimed, "Wow! A lot of sugar!" and she nodded and said, "Thankyou."

There are three students at ASYV who want to become artists and they are improving freakishly fast in their skills. One young student, Jacky, has such a creative writing and art mind, that I am just blown away whenever she comes up with anything new. She has never been the best at realistic art, but what she comes up with is so insanely creative and interesting and also just makes sense - the way that really good art does. I can't really write about it, so I will put up some of her art and writing before I leave Rwanda. You can see one already on this post, but there are more to come.

The other two students are very good at realistic drawing and are also creative. Interestingly, they are working as a team.

They don't sign their art with their personal signatures, but just write "N.C." I am not quite sure what I feel about this. It intuitively feels wrong - I can't put a finger on why, though. I was always taught that what you draw is your own, that the whole point of a good piece is that it expresses something very personal that no other human can quite express, but that everyone else is supposed to somehow understand. But I suppose two people can work together. Rwanda is full of co-ops, and so working with another artist makes sense, a little - though the art galleries in Kigali still exhibit individual signatures. I can't think of anything wrong with the idea, so power to them. They may get more exposure, because combined they can produce more pieces, and they do bring different skills, both in the art itself and in the marketing. You can see their artwork at There is a bit to much plagiarism in the text for my taste - you can copy and past into google and see for yourself. But the text is nothing special compared to what they drew, so have a look and enjoy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Favorite Ugandan and now Rwandan English

Yesterday I sat next to an Australian and Kenyan in a Kigali coffee shop and I was so jealous of their perfect accents. I have decided that Ugandan accents are a close third in the English-speaking accent awards, possibly edging up to take second or first if I ever spend more time around Australians and Kenyans and their accent's mystique wears off. Here are the top three expressions/intonations in Ugandan English that make me melt.They are being adopted by Rwandans learning English, which is now the official language taught in more and more schools. Keep in mind that one or two may just be the funny expressions of the few Ugandans I talk to the most. In which case, everyone should adopt them anyway.

1) Are you sloping/going to slope? = Are you going down? (like when you are on the top of the hill, which happens a lot in Rwanda)

2) By the way - but said like by the way. But with "by" in a sort of sing-songy way, said at a higher pitch but with less emphasis than the "way." It's hard to explain, but it's fabulous. And used in debate speeches all the time, adding little musical touches to speeches.

3) "So" as interchangeable with "very" both in meaning and in intonation. This one's tricky to explain in written word. Usually when Americans are speaking and want "so" to mean "very" we change the way we say "so" to signify that we are not using it as a comparison. So we say, for example, "he was sooooooo handsome!" Rwandans/Ugandans say the "so" with a pitch going up towards the end, not so different than we would say "so" when we want to use it as a comparison, as in "he was so handsome all the girls fell in love with him." So when someone says, "The budget is so high" I keep on waiting for the dreaded, "...that we can't afford it." And that never comes, because the speaker merely wants to point out that the budget is very high, and I can relax.

4) "You people" - this one doesn't really count, because a lot of countries do this, when people really want to signify that they are speaking to more than one person, which you can't do in English. It sounds so offensive when I first hear it - it's like, what do you mean "you people"? But then I just exchange it in my head with "you" meant to refer to many people, and I relax.

5) "Me, I" as in "Me, I like ice cream." I think this is mostly Rwandan, because in Kinyarwanda you say "Me, I" rather than just "I." But if any of you can recall Sesame Street puppets or Barney, a lot of kids shows have fictional talking fluffy monsters or dinosaurs also say, "Me, I..." and so when I hear the students say it, I kind of subconsciously go, "awwww."

6) Ok, this one has nothing to do with English, and isn't exactly charming, but: the use of the word "Mzungu" for everyone who has slightly lighter skin, and not just white people. I used to think that when people were saying "mzungu" they were talking about me, but I slowly learned that when just want to refer to someone in the room, and that someone is Rwandan but has slightly lighter skin but no other particularly unique characteristics, because they're boring dressers or something, some people might say "mzungu" the same way we would say, "the guy with brown hair." I am not sure how common this is, because it feels really rude to jump into people's conversations all the time and ask who they are talking about, but I've found this to be the case a few times.

7) "Stapling machine" for stapler. I like this one, because I imagine a massive, industrial machine that fills up a whole room and stables lots and lots of papers at once.

There is always the question of how much to correct students. The above are expressions that don't really need correcting in spoken English, because it's perfectly clear what the intention is, and is more or less just a product of the local culture that jazzes up, rather than messes up, the English. Same for fiction writing. In some writing, through, it's another story: when people apply for jobs, and the decision maker for a job is not from East Africa, it may look less professional. So I tell students to keep talking as they do, but to make changes when writing anything meant to be professional. But it's all a game, really - the intentions are clear enough either way, it's just a matter of sending the signal of professionalism.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Repairing Traffic Cones

The local shoesmiths specialize in sewing anything up. Next door, around 30 meters away, is a local motorcycle testing school, or something - I see a bunch of riders riding between the orange cones carefully lined up outside of the catholic church, across the street from the school. Orange street cones crack, so the shoesmiths sew up the cracks before they are placed in their lines again.

Things like orange cones are as expensive in Rwanda as they are in a developing country, but shoe
smiths are cheaper, so
cones are fixed up.
In other news, sneakily tucked away in this post on traffic cones: some mamas came up to m
e and assured me that I was still getting fatter. Though I'm not. I checked the scale. They
pinched my arms and lower back ( handles...) and were truly impressed. I
like to think that this was an assurance, a confidence boost, just in case I was getting insecure about my not getting fatter.