This One Goes Out to All the Grandmas

Presenting: An Overview, only three weeks late.

I realize this may be the type of post only my grandma reads, but alas. Here are the details of life and work in the last three weeks:

Barry, Jeff & I on our first day in Kigali

Thurs March 7: On arrival, we were met at the airport by members of ALARM and escorted to their guesthouse at the Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The center sits on a hill in the outskirts of Kigali City, in a sector called Kagugu, which feels far-removed, but views over Kigali city are amazing! Also amazing are the avocados that grow and fall freely all over the path outside our room, and the giant hawks that attack them.

Our good friends from Wisconsin, also met us at the airport, although they’re not really from Wisconsin. Rachel is from England, and Ricardo is from Mexico, and their two little boys have the cutest Mexican-English accents you’ve ever heard! They are living in a sector called Kimihurura, on another ridge in Kigali City, working for UNICEF (Rach) and the University of Sussex (Ricky). These are the friends we went to Cuba with a few years ago, and it was a total coincidence to meet here at the same time. Fab. They will henceforth be referred to as R&R.

The third sector we have become familiar with is Kacyiru, which is where our host family lives, and we’re able to walk from here to the library, several Internet cafés, the burrito shop and the Embassy. More on this Fam later.

I tell you these locations up front so you can appreciate this inner monologue, which demonstrates our learning curve as we try to navigate between these different sectors on different ridges by taxi and public transport:

Where do R&R live again?  Kitchy-huru? Kimikura?  I know it’s not Kacyiru, because that’s where Ben lives.  And it’s not Kagugu, because that’s where ALARM Center is. So it must be Kimyhura. Wait Kinyahurura. Wait Chimy-hu-ru-ra. Yes! That one. We are going to Kimihurura!

The city is sprawled across four ridges and valleys, with the city center on one ridge, the main government buildings on another, and different sectors and cells on other ridges. Typically (but not always), the nice big houses are on the ridges, and the poorer houses and communities are in the valleys. At times, you can see where you want to go directly in front of you, but there’s a valley in between, and it’s on the next ridge, so navigating around the valley makes getting places counter intuitive sometimes.

The country of Rwanda is about the size of Maryland, but with 11 million people crunched inside. Every square inch of rural land (except the national forests) is terraced and farmed. There are five provinces—Northern, Southern, Western, Eastern and Kigali. The City of Kigali is divided into three Districts, 35 Sectors, 161 Cells, and 1061 Umudugudu (neighborhoods). All these distinctions make it confusing when telling a taxi where to go, and really confusing when I’m trying to understand what they’re yelling out of the matatu (taxi minibus), and really super confusing with all the interchangeable ‘k’ and ‘ch’ and ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds.

We spent Friday Mar 8- Monday Mar 10 at the ALARM center combating jet lag, organizing ourselves with phones and internet connections, meeting the staff of ALARM, and learning about their mission, programs, projects, and activities. We had an unexpected interview with two university students being sponsored by ALARM, both graduates of the IWE girls school mentioned below.  We attended a National Rwandan League basketball game on Saturday with R&R, the KIE University Fellowship Church service on Sunday with Ben, the country director of ALARM, and met with members of the Rwanda Christian Lawyer’s Association on Monday.

Kabuga Vocational Training

On Tuesday evening, we picked up a three-person team from Grace Community (our home church) who had come to explore a formal partnership with ALARM as one of the church’s Frontline Ministries.  With this group, we packed in a quick tour of all ALARM’s main projects within the country into four days. By Friday, we had visited a vocational training center for street kids in Kabuga (above), a boarding school for girls called the Institute of Women for Excellence (IWE) in Rwamagana, met with a group of pastors and government leaders in Nyirangarama who had participated in a leadership training facilitated by ALARM, spent two nights at a rehabilitated coffee plantation making strides in economic development and reconciliation in Cyimbili, visited with a women’s microfinance group in Musanze (the Volcano town!) who call themselves the Social Blessings Women’s Group, and ended the week at Ben’s Baptist church in Kacyiru on Sunday. We said goodbye to our new friends and saw the team off on Sunday evening, played catch-up and joined our host families on Monday, and attended a joint Rwandan ex-pat Bible study Tuesday with R&R.

Student at IWE School
Student at IWE School

Back to the host family: We are staying with the country director, his wife, and their five daughters, who range in age from 2-20! Ben’s home has been a sweet time of visiting, talking, and coffee drinking, because shortly after moving in with them, the rains began and the electricity stopped. This has provided lots of time for conversation and visiting. We have loved fielding questions from the oldest daughter (age 20) about life in America, as her impressions have been almost entirely formed by E! –

  • “Does everyone there have loads of money to spend on breast implants?”
  • “Are people really like the Kardashians?”
  • “When the police are called, do a helicopter, and a news van, and 50 police officers respond every time?”
  • “Is it true that when you call 911, the police come immediately?” 

She has had a response like, “I knew it!” almost every time we’ve set the record straight, as though E! has been trying to trick her all along. She is bright and fun and has answered all our equally ridiculous questions about Rwanda.

We have also enjoyed conversations with the second oldest (age 18), who is an avid debater. Her most recent debate required her to take the affirmative position on whether or not Rwanda will become a middle income country by 2020. It was interesting hearing her arguments for both sides.

The youngest three are adorable (ages 2, 6, and 7) and have really warmed up to Jeff. He’s thrilled about this since my own nieces have taken almost three years to even stand next to him in the same room :)

Jeff & KidsJeff & Kids 2

Meals have been consistently the same, no matter where we’ve been. There is always some form of irish potato, either boiled or fried, always rice, always beans, and usually some kind of ugali bread or cassava. Ugali (left) is Swahili for this special maize bread, and the texture is like a smooth, tasteless grits patty. Ubugali (right) is the Kinyarawanda word for Cassava Bread, which is green and stretchy, tasteless, and is made to absorb the flavor of other foods and to swallow without chewing. It has taken some getting used to :/  Three-four nights per week, we’ll have fish, chicken or beef. Breakfast is boiled eggs, bread, banana and sometimes mango or passion fruit. The exception is when we are taken to buffets, and there we also find avocado, fried cauliflower, and pasta salad. We have obviously remained healthy and full (fat).

Ugali (maize)Ubugali (cassava)

On Wednesday (Mar 20), Jeff, Barry, and I returned to the IWE girls’ school to spend more time with the staff, interview some of the girls, and get a better understanding about what life is really like there, and what attending this school means for the girls and their families. In all, the trip took 7 hours, and we were only at the school for 2! The bus system is hectic and slow, but, you know. We made it. IWE and the Kabuga Voc Center are next on my list to write about in-depth, so be looking for those.  On Wednesday night, we met the husband of the next PT director for Hillside Clinic in Belize at Hotel des Mille Collines, which was the hotel portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda. It was kind of surreal and eerie to be there, but what a small world! He was there doing contract work for a few weeks with World Bank on vocational training success.

Saying goodbye to Barry
Saying goodbye to Barry

Barry left for South Sudan on Thursday, and Jeff and I met with the Country Director for As We Forgive on Friday. The meeting was blessed, and I am moved by the work this organization is doing- along the same lines as ALARM, but more narrowly focused in their reconciliation work. If you have the chance to read the book As We Forgive or watch the award-winning documentary ($8 on Amazon), DO IT! It’s captivating. I can’t wait to write about this more in-depth. The most meaningful story was the recalling of a woman’s work toward reconciling with an avocado. There, now you’ll have to read the blog when I find the time to write it :)  We plan to attend some memorial week activities with As We Forgive, squeezed into our time with ALARM that week.

We took Saturday and Saturday off to catch-up on notes and writings, walk around the city, and get our bearings in our new Sector. We discovered the public Library, which was beautiful, and found several coffee shops and Internet hot spots, although “hot spot” should be renamed “slowest internet I’ve ever seen in my life spot”.  We spent Saturday night celebrating the birthdays of R&R at their home, meeting new friends and dancing the night away, and Sunday morning at Christ’s Church Rwanda waving palm branches. So fun!

On Monday Mar 25, we packed up again and loaded the matatu to come back to Cyimbili for a week. Our purpose this week is to spend time with the workers on the plantation for ten days or so to integrate as much as we can into life and work in this magical little community. We will work alongside the daily workers, picking, shelling, washing and drying coffee. We will interview some of the workers, go on some home visits, collect audio recordings of the coffee-picking process and different language clips, and… wait for it… roast our own coffee! We hope to check out the Congo Nile lakefront trail, which may become fundraising trek for World Next Door in the near future, and we are trying to convince the police boat to ferry us over to the island across the lake to see the farming on the island, and to capture a bird’s-eye view of the entire Cyimbili plantation.

Today, Tuesday, we are working our way down a task list of things to accomplish while we’re here this week, but we have been stalled by the rain. The workers went home, and I am now trying to find ingredients to make an “American” breakfast and dinner, per the request of Anastasi, the house lady. My plan is Eggs in a Basket (which I call one-eyed sailor, though I don’t think that would translate, really) and French toast for breakfast. You should have seen the way everyone gathered around my laptop and scratched their heads as they studied a picture of cinnamon. Also, syrup. We’ll be eating cinnamon-less French toast with honey instead of syrup, and for dinner we’ll have vegetable pasta. This, in exchange for learning how to make Ugali (maize) bread, and Ubugali (cassava) bread.

How can you pray for us?

Well. For starters, there’s all this.

Also, as we get to know people, outer layers start peeling off. Stories and little details about things I hadn’t considered emerged, for example how teenagers get moody during April (memorial month) even though they were only infants or 2-year-olds during the months their families hid or fled before and after the genocide, how the entire country is irritable because of all the triggers accidentally sparked by government leaders or commemoration speakers, or how hurt and angry some might feel when speakers who didn’t experience the genocide give speeches to or on behalf of the country during the memorial period- all of these things are anticipatory stressors. Even facial expressions are changing in preparation.

All this to say, I’m praying about approaching the memorial time with the right balance of respect, emotion, reverence.

So. There you go.

Three weeks packed into one irresponsibly long blog post. You’re welcome.

Musical Chairs. Sort of.

This morning we attended church at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), where about 11 simultaneous church services of various denominations were occurring in each of the classrooms surrounding the courtyard. So cool. University students from different parts of the country studying at KIE worship together with their associations on this campus each Sunday, and once a month all the denominations worship together. We happened to be worshiping with the Free Methodists, which I think is funny, because the free Methodist Church World Ministries Center is in Indianapolis. Wait, what?

We were not the only visitors this morning. Our preacher, Jean Paul, was a visiting minister from a local church and also a pastoral staff for World Vision. Several former students, including the PR/Communications guy for the Ministry of Disaster Management who also happens to be a photojournalist (THAT was fun), along with the Finance Director of ALARM who just moved from Kenya in January, plus a gospel singer and her guitarist husband were all visiting the student congregation today from their own local churches. Our host, the Country Director of ALARM, travels all over to these university congregations, because he is in charge of the University Youth Associations for the Free Methodist denomination in Kigali City. He brought us along for the English speaking service, which happens once a month.

About 20 students attended, including an 8-person choir. We asked to take some pics after the reason for our being in-country was explained, and below is a clip of the choir. Some songs were in English & some in Kinyarwanda, but most of the preaching was in English. Here is an example of a Kinyarwanda word: Mwaramutse (good morning) or Murakoze (Thank you). Now imagine seeing words like this for the first time in a hymnal and trying to sing them :)

Before the actual service was an interactive Bible study, and after the service was a Q&A time between our team and the students (pic below). We learned about the ways in which ALARM has impacted their lives, faith, and education by asking two questions: What is it really like to live here? and What is God doing in Rwanda through ALARM? We will continue to ask these questions for the next 7 weeks throughout different projects of ALARM and other ministries.

After church, we hopped a public transport bus for lunch, which reminds me: Anytime I’m transported anywhere, I just stare out the window in amazement at the beauty of Kigali city and countryside. The thing about this bus ride, though, is that the middle aisle is actually just one fold-down seat in the middle of each row, so if you are lucky enough to get a middle seat, you are actually sitting in the aisle. Poor you.

Each time someone behind you has to get off the bus, you must get up, lift up your seat and move back to the person’s empty seat behind you. The person in front of you then takes your seat, and the person in front of them takes theirs, and so on. It’s like musical chairs without the music and with no prize. Being the last five people on the bus, Jeff, Barry and I got the last three aisle seats, so who do you think ended up in the very back row after several rounds of musical chairs? The three of us, plus Peter, the finance guy, one row ahead. Winners! (Right?)

We then enjoyed a fantastic buffet and loads of conversation with ALARM staff, a breezy walk downtown past the Tulane office (Wait, what?) and a quick taxi home. So, to recap: We left for church this morning at 8a, and arrived home at 4p. That’s eight hours of church, eating and transport!

The 36-hour Update

First things first. Contact info:

My number is +25 0789000545 and Jeff’s number is +25 789000543.

You can call us on your dime, and we’ll answer, but we can’t call you! So, basically the opposite of Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

The 36-hour Update

So far, we’ve met the ALARM staff in Kigali, interviewed two girls who graduated from ALARM’S Institute of Women for Excellence and who are now being sponsored as they attend University (photo below), ate delicious carrot ginger soup, drank out of a filter straw desperate for water on our first night, realizing we forgot to buy some in town or obtain some from ALARM before everyone went to bed- whoops; Met up with good friends from Wisconsin (what?!) for the first ever organized orchestra: Injyana Orchestra Rwanda put on by students from the International School and Christ’s Church Rwanda. Oh, and then we ate some pizza!


We are heading out to explore downtown Kigali, and this evening between the three of us, we plan to a) photograph a Rwandan wedding reception and b) attend a professional basketball game at the stadium.

The food is great, everyone is healthy, days are hot and nights are cool. We are looking forward to church tomorrow, meeting up with the Grace team on Monday and visiting ALARM’s IWE school and coffee plantation later this week.

Below is our view of downtown Kigali from the courtyard outside our room at ALARM center.


Hugs to all, and thanks for your support!