Rwanda: Distant Ancestors, Darkness, and a New Hope

This post has been entered in the NY Times Most Pretentious Post Title competition for 2011.

Rwanda is a remarkable place. A landlocked country in the middle of East Africa, it’s known informally as the Land of a Thousand Hills. It’s mountainous, lush, and home to one of the last remaining populations of Mountain Gorillas left in the world. (Total remaining world population: 790.) It’s the primate part that brings a lot of tourists to Rwanda, and it’s why we decided to make a visit.

The other major thing you encounter in Rwanda, beyond the primates, are the remnants of Rwanda’s recent revolution and genocide. Thanks to Hotel Rwanda, many of us have heard of and learned more about the Rwandan genocide. But the facts remain staggering. In the span of 100 days, nearly a million people were killed on the basis of their race. And the rest of the world did nothing to stop it.

But the recent past of Rwanda is at odds with its present. Throughout Africa, Rwanda is now seen as a beacon of hope. The roads are perfectly paved. There is little or no corruption. The country is developing and improving itself at a breakneck pace. It is stable and safe. Much of this is thanks to the Rwandan people, but much of it is also thanks to Paul Kagame, revolutionary leader and the current president. The recent history of Rwanda and Paul Kagame’s rise to leadership is one of the more interesting things I’ve read in Africa.

Like many places, then, Rwanda is a land of contrasts. After a few months in Nairobi, it blew our minds to be able to walk safely at night, and to see policemen that were actually patrolling and were there to help you. On the flip side, it’s frightening to read about how quickly the genocide started, and how many normal folks participated. Driving into the mountains to view the gorillas, we were astonished to take roads so perfectly leveled and paved that I’d be impressed if I found them in the U.S. And we were correspondingly surprised that out of all the places we visited in Africa, Rwanda’s capital is the only one without an ATM that would accept foreign cards.

Rwanda is changing fast, and when you’re there, you can feel the sense of hope that’s growing there, both for Rwanda itself and the rest of East Africa. Additionally, there are also crazy super-awesome gorillas.

A pastoral scene, not dissimilar from one of my own family.

So what’s next? For Rwanda, we’ve put together a multi-step tour:

  • It starts with a Sundowner Report in Musanze, where Page and I talk about our experience in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and our expectations for seeing the gorillas the next day.
  • Then, there’s a photo and video gallery that starts with a few shots from Kigali and then takes you though the forest to meet a group of mountain gorillas.
  • Finally, we conclude with a second Sundowner Report, after seeing the gorillas, where we narrate the pretty-rad experience of a real-life Gorilla Encounter.

Sundowner Report, Episode 5, Part 2: After the Gorillas

In the follow-up report to Sundowner Report, Episode 5, Part 1: Before the Gorillas, Page and I describe what it feels like to be surrounded by ten or so 600 lb gorillas, from only a few feet away. And possibly a little closer.

Sundowner Report, Episode 5, Part 1: Before the Gorillas

In Rwanda, we’ve decided to do our investigative, hard-hitting Sundowner Report as a two-parter: one part before we saw the gorillas, and part one after. In this first part of our groundbreaking report, we talk a bit about things Page is looking forward to from futuristic civilizations, our experiences with agriculture and manufacturing, and how we felt after visiting the Rwanda Genocide Memorial. You may also catch Page’s prescient report on what she would do if charged by a gorilla, information she will end up relying upon tomorrow.

The Sundowner Report, Episode 4

It’s a rare sundown that can top the view of a sundown in the Masai Mara. So, join Page and my trusty sidekick Myself in the long overdue, possibly anticipated Sundowner Report, Episode 4, brought to you in My-Cellphone-O-Vision from the Masai Mara savannah. It’s entirely possible that actual wild animals may be featured in this film.

Let's go on safari: The Masai Mara

If you’ve been following our blog closely, you may have noticed that we’re in Africa. Africa! I heard that’s a place where you go see animals, and go on safari. Well, that’s what I heard.

The careful reader may have further noticed that while we’ve been in Africa for a while, we haven’t actually gone on safari yet. In fact, it took us almost two and a half months after we arrived before we went on a safari proper. To be honest, part of the reason why we delayed was that I didn’t think I would enjoy it. Cooped up in a car all day? Just driving around, looking for stuff? For 3 days on end? Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.

I was wrong. I really, deeply enjoyed going on safari. What I didn’t understand was how incredibly beautiful and peaceful the savannah is. Viewing the landscape is like lying on the beach and like staring out onto a moving, changing ocean. What I also didn’t understand is how captivating it is to watch an wild animal being itself in its natural habitat. On safari, the animals don’t really notice or care about the cars, as they don’t really fit into their world view, so they almost completely ignore you. The experience is like stepping into an animal family’s living room, and watching everyday domestic drama unfold.

I’m now hooked on safaris. Out on the savannah, I felt the most relaxed and happy that I’ve felt in a long, long time.

Descriptions and words don’t really do the safari justice, however. So instead, come with me for a little safari of your own through our photos of the Masai Mara. There’s some animals, a hot air balloon ride, the Great Migration, and one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I hope you can visit, too, someday.


Big times! Two years ago today we got married. The ceremony took place in a bush.

Today we are celebrating by [BLOG DISCONTINUITY ALERT] doing some laundry in our friend Erik’s apartment in Paris. And then eating too much. It’s going to be great! Hope all of you are doing well and recovering from hurricane mania.

Wandering wazungu

Being white in Kenya means getting a certain number of shout-outs. “Mzungu!” (muh-ZOON-goo) someone will shout from the window of a passing car or matatu (minibus). “Mzungu,” someone at the supermarket will mutter, expressing some mix of incredulity and fatalism at whatever incomprehensible faux pas I’ve committed most recently. And if you pass a group of children, particularly outside Nairobi, forget it. Choruses of “mzungu!” accompanied by excited pointing. If you make eye contact, expect shrieking and a general dissolution into giggles. It looked at me!

Mostly, mzungu is used to mean white person, though technically it translates to something closer to “wanderer” or “one who goes far from home.” (The wa- prefix – wazungu rather than mzungu – indicates the plural.) People of Asian or Middle Eastern descent also get called mzungu, though I think less frequently than Causcasian people do.

This is an actual advertisement in Nairobi’s international airport. Barclays wants everyone to know that white people are idiots with too much money.

The mzungu shout-out is a funny thing. It’s hard to imagine this exact phenomenon happening in a different cultural setting. Even visiting other places where we’ve been the only Caucasians for miles, it would be unusual to hear someone yell “foreigner!” when I walk by.

My first inclination is usually just to be like, “Yup, well spotted! I am indeed a white person. Have a good day.” So mostly when someone calls me mzungu, I answer “ndiyo” – to mean “yes,” or “it is true what you say.” Sure, “mzungu” is not intended as a compliment. But I chose to come here, and I’m here in awareness of colonial history and of how few positive connotations accompany white people’s presence in Kenya and in Africa generally. And reacting with humor feels like a way of sort of absorbing the blow gently, in such a way that doesn’t harm me or the shouter.

Some expats we’ve met, though, reeeeeaallly hate it. Because it’s rude and exclusionary, because it reflects prejudice and a general lack of effort to relate, because it makes race the most immediate and significant part of the interaction – these are understandable frustrations. And though I don’t experience the same exasperation as a short-timer, I’m sure if I were here longer I’d grow tired of the repeated reminders of my outsider status.

Also, mzungu-identification is a small problem that has some amount of overlap with several larger problems. Like: Plenty of locals regard foreign people as potential sources of cash. (For that we may have partially to blame Barclays, for their ridonkulous ad, pictured above.) This is to some extent fair enough; anyone who has enough money for a plane ticket to east Africa probably also has some money to spare. But the tendency to see non-Africans as the dollar-dripping Other has less-than-great implications for tourism, international trade, and loan repayment – so I’m not sure that it’s great for Kenya’s business climate generally.

Maybe even more importantly, focusing first on people’s ancestry is a problem in Kenya even beyond the basic black-white divide. Kenya comprises forty-something distinct tribal groups (the exact number depends on how you count), each having its own language, customs and identities. And tribal affiliation Is not some quaint archaic thing. Kenyans size up each other’s tribal affiliations – based on clues of name, appearance, accent or whom they hang out with – very rapidly, and in some ways tribal affiliation is regarded as destiny. We hear assertions like “All Luos like fish / stick together / are aggressive” with some frequency. (Some Kenyans we’ve met make a conscious effort not to do this — intentionally speaking Swahili, the country’s lingua franca, and socializing irrespective of tribal boundaries. But this attitude is regarded as pretty progressive.)

In a country in which corruption is a major, major issue and resolving legal and bureaucratic matters often requires knowing (and, sometimes, bribing) somebody on the inside, tribal networks can be a path to getting things done. And politicians often represent, or are perceived as representing, the interests of their tribes of origin more than the interests of all Kenyans. All these factors add up to an uneasy situation, in which tribal identity is for most people more important than nationality; inter-tribal tension and mistrust remain unfortunately common, and outright violence flares up periodically, as happened after the election of 2007.

These latter issues primarily affect Kenyans, and not wazungu, but it all seems somewhat related to me – related to a focus on origins, combined with a view that origins are deterministic.

All that said, I still find it hard to mind when someone calls out mzungu at me. In a way it’s the start of a conversation – and a fairly honest one, that begins with “I see you as a foreigner.” It may not be all that gracious, but it’s not fake, either. And for all that “mzungu” calls attention to a divide, it doesn’t always feel hostile. One time I was out at a local market for lunch with some coworkers, and a grubby drunk young guy popped out from behind a van. Startled, I took half a step back; what did he want? “Mzungu!” he crowed, and held out his fist for me to pound. “Mzungu!” I said back, fist-bumping him, and we both laughed. It’s weird to be greeted with a racial ID, but at least we’re talking.

Kenyan Food

Food in Kenya, as in many other countries in post-colonial Africa, has a complex history. Kenya as a country developed quickly under Western influence from a spread-out, rural area of many tribes into a single large nation with huge cities, over the space of just 40 years or so. Thus, the food also developed quickly, going through a sort of accelerated, multi-cultural melting pot over that period.

While this may mean that Kenyan food doesn’t have the millennia of shared history behind it that say, Ethiopian food has, this doesn’t mean that the deliciousness has been impacted in any way. In a much smaller, much more sedate way, Kenyan food reminds me a little bit of Malaysian food, in the way that both nations freely combine many traditions and cultures to create a result that is fiercely their own.

So, down to business. Here are three areas of Kenyan food that I think are important to know about: the pervasive Kenyan lunch plate, the Indian influence you find everywhere, and BBQ’n a way into my heart: nyama choma.

Kenyan plate

Come to me, delicious lunch. Stay in my stomach and make a little home.

Throughout Kenya, as far as I can tell, the lunch that everyone eats is what I call the Kenyan plate. Man, is it good. The basic template isn’t that surprising: it’s a starch (either rice, ugali, or chapati), with whatever main you order, plus some vegetable sides. Common entree options are beans, beef stew, fried chicken, lentils (called green grams or ndengu), or matumbo (tripe). My personal favorite is beans.

The whole plate shebang will often be topped with a touch of kachumbari, which is something like salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, sometimes avocado, all nicely chopped up and fresh.

Often the Kenyan plate is served from a small house or a small business that’s near where people work, and which caters to the lunch crowd only. There’s two lunch places like this within a block of where I’ve been volunteering. They are pretty awesome, homey affairs: just a few people in the kitchen, maybe a waiter to take your order, and some folding chairs and a table in the sun.

The best part about the Kenyan lunch plate, though, is that it changes every day. Every place I’ve had it, and every time I’ve returned, it’s slightly different. Some days you get cabbage, some days you get sukuma wiki (sauteed kale). Some days you get four vegetable sides, sometimes just one. Sometimes they have beef, sometimes they only have ndengu. And sometimes, no matter what you order, you’ll get something totally new. You can’t control it, you roll with it, and it’s great fun.

Counterclockwise, from top left: Stoney, a type of spicy ginger soda; stewed potatoes and vegetables with tomato; sukuma wiki, which is sauteed cabbage/kale; some delicious cabbage; Beef stew, a common lunch entree; pili pili, which are sliced very hot peppers; and steamed rice.

I really, really like the Kenyan lunch plate. It’s one thing I’m really going to miss when I leave Kenya: having a delicious, home-cooked, mostly vegetarian lunch each day for about $1 U.S. The Google cafeteria is fancy and legitimately great, but for me personally, I’d take the Kenyan plate every time.

Indian influence

One thing that I was surprised to learn when I got to Nairobi is how widespread the Indian influence is, both in Nairobi and across Kenya. For a long time, there’s been a sizeable Indian population in Kenya, and you can see this all over town in Nairobi: there’s a ton of Sikh and Hindu temples, there’s a lot of specialized Indian shopping centers and groceries, and one affluent district of town, Westlands, is mostly composed of Indians. (If you watch carefully, you can even see a scene in “Out of Africa” where there’s a parade through Nairobi after the war is over. In a building in the background, a bunch of folks are holding a banner that says, “The Indian Community Salutes The Victory.”)

What this means for you, dear eater, is that there’s all sorts of Indian influence up in your Kenyan food. Which is awesome. One example is chapati, which has been fully integrated into Kenyan food as the most common side bread with a meal. Which, I have to say, is awesome: I will never say no to delicious fried up savory bread goodness.

Lillian, our samosa lady.

Samosas are another way that you see this Indian influence. Kenya has adopted and re-imagined the samosa as a meat-filled, triangular pastry of hot deliciousness. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, or as a snack. One of the great little pleasures I’ve had while volunteering in Kenya is having Lillian, from the lunch place down the road, come by my desk each morning at 10 AM to give me a freshly made hot meat samosa. Price: 20 cents.

Time from this photo to utter happiness: 4 seconds.

If you ask most Kenyans what they think about Indian food, though, they won’t know what you’re talking about. They’ll firmly assure you that chapati and samosas are not Indian, but are in fact Kenyan. And they’re right. That’s how the melting pot works.

Nyama Choma

Of course, no investigation of Kenyan (or East African) cuisine would be complete without a long, leisurely drive down Nyama Choma Lane.

The Prepping.

What is nyama choma? In swahili, nyama means meat, and choma means grill. But usually, what is commonly meant by nyama choma is mbezi choma, or grilled goat. That’s because goat is the luxury meat of choice, here: a goat strung up on a tree outside your house literally means Party.

The Grilling.

And folks, I have a secret to let you in on: I have discovered that I love goat. I mean, I really, really love goat. To the extent that if you now gave me a plate of expertly prepared cuts of goat, beef, chicken, and pork (thank you!) what I’d reach for first is now goat.

Of course, in the US, we don’t really eat goat. Which is a shame. Because, in fact, goat is ideal in so many ways. As a meat, it’s considerably milder than lamb, and not gamy at all. For those who haven’t had it, the taste of goat resembles something like 80% the taste of lean beef (like loin) and 20% of mild lamb. So it’s like beef with a slight added punch of additional flavor, but not too strong at all. De-licious. Because goat meat is a bit tougher than huge lazy beef slabs, that also means that goat can be cooked in many awesome ways and hold up well: fast grill, slow BBQ, boiled, braised, baked.

The Fixins’. Counterclockwise, from the top: ugali (with some pili pili peppers nearby), sukuma wiki (braised kale/cabbage), kachumbari, pilau rice, chapati.

However, nyama choma is more than just the deliciously smoky-charred-juicy goat. Traditionally, you enjoy the grilled goat with ugali, which is something like maize dough (your starch), and kachumbari (your veg), and a little smidgen of salt to dip it in to taste. The goat is grilled naked, with no additional spicing added, and cut into small bite sized pieces for easy pickup. So, take a pinch of ugali, make a little pancake, use it to grab some meat and kachumbari-salsa, dab it in the salt, and enjoy.

The Chomping.

Or just eat the whole damn leg, like me.

See the full album of Kenyan Food adventures, including a shot of Page with a camel-milk moustache. No joke.

Monkey-ball weekend: Diani beach

I know what you guys are thinking. “We get it. Nairobi has a bad reputation. There is abundant wildlife in the region. Do you have any other material?”

We do! A little bit! For instance, one June weekend we went with about 15 other people on a trip to Diani, a beach town south of Mombasa, on Kenya’s Swahili coast. We all rented a lovely house right on the beach and played a lot of cards and ate too much and went swimming and got sand in our suits.

To get to the coast we took an overnight train, second-class, from Nairobi to Mombasa. Apparently around a third of the time the train breaks down in Tsavo National Park — of “Man-Easting Lions of Tsavo” fame — and passengers just sit and swelter for hours. This did not happen to us, and other minor inconveniences like sadistic dining-car staff and having to use a squat toilet on a moving train really paled in comparison to the central triumph of our on-time arrival. The train stops frequently in the pitch-dark nowhere along the way, and the dare is to get off when the train is stopped and run around in the possibly man-eating darkness, before running to re-board the train once it starts slowly chugging on again. For some reason I actually did this. Stupid, even before I fell on the tracks and cut my hand (that tetanus booster is really pulling its weight on this trip), but the Milky Way view was amazing: cloudy and intricate and spectacular.

Blood on the tracks.

Diani has the powderiest white sand I’ve ever encountered. I am still finding it in my clothes, numerous washes later. The Indian Ocean was warm and clear, and the beach was strewn with seaweed and studded with coral and livened up by the occasional camel (sadly, not pictured).

Whatever I had expected the beaches of east Africa to look like, it somehow wasn’t this. Though I don’t know what I had been expecting. Bongo drums?

Still, a beach weekend is a beach weekend is a beach weekend. A few further distinguishing characteristics of this one:

  • The realities of the tourist economy are such that you can’t walk fifteen feet on the beach without being approached by someone hoping to sell you something. Mainly carved wooden keychains, bangles and drugs (including the perplexingly named “white crack”). The beach entrepreneurs were persistent and numerous. Even understanding that people have to make a living, being so doggedly pursued was stressful and irritating. (Buying stuff didn’t seem to help matters. Maybe if we’d bought something from everyone, but who needs that many keychains.) We joked darkly that we should try to turn the tables and attempt to sell them something, just to mix it up a bit. “Want some palm fronds? Only 100 Shillings…”
  • The realities of the tourist economy — or the something economy — also are such that our van driver got pulled over by enterprising cops and shaken down for bribes both leaving and returning to Mombasa.
  • We sustained an exciting monkey invasion! Heading out for a run one morning, our friend Danae opened her bedroom door to find several vervet monkeys hanging out in the hallway. The rest of us slept through the ensuing territorial skirmish, in which the monkeys raced around the house leaving poo and matoke (plantain) chips in their wake and came back through the windows as soon as they’d been hustled out the doors. They came in again the next day and took a container of dates and sat in a tree, solemnly eating while watching us. We were all very entertained by their delicate date-pitting and electric-blue testicles.
  • We came back from a walk one day and the lovely household staff had picked us each a fresh coconut to drink and eat. Full-service, or what?
  • We did not tempt fate by making the return journey to Nairobi by train; instead, we flew. The small, open-air Mombasa airport had a couple of low-key restaurant options. One of them was a kind of cafeteria, whose menu options inexplicably included lobster thermidor, advertised for the bargain price of 6000 Kenyan Shillings (or around 60 bucks). Kevin tried to order it as a joke, and the woman at the counter said they were out. He asked if anyone had ever ordered it; she just laughed.
  • The matatu we took from Diani to the airport was kind of a disco matatu, and it played music videos the whole way. Except actually it just repeated one extremely low-budget music video that featured a bunch of guys sitting around looking bored at a party, mixed with sequences of three heavyset ladies standing with their legs apart doing very vigorous butt-clenching.

Bunch of goofy pictures of us and other travelers cavorting around — plus a cameo of Young Jeezy — here! Not pictured: Me sitting more or less on the lap of a matatu conductor on the way from Mombasa to Diani; Kevin losing his contact lenses in the ocean; my Kindle breaking; me spending half the night trying to kill mosquitoes inside our mosquito net; a big group of us passing an afternoon speaking in funny accents; Kevin mislaying one of his cochlear-implant batteries at the airport and then, miraculously, finding it; monkey testicles.

Elephants, pancakes and breaking the law: Nairobi early days

When we first arrived in Nairobi, I wasn’t sure how to be. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Nairobi is vilified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, so you get a bizarre sense of satisfaction after spending a month there without so much as having your wallet lifted.” This was certainly something to look forward to. But what to do until then?

I found it very difficult to assess the actual menace. What is the relationship between most dangerous in the world and most dangerous you can imagine? Walking the shade-dappled lane from our hotel to the nearest ATM, I couldn’t figure out if I was reasonably safe carrying the money back to our room, or if I was being a total idiot. (Some people – many of them concerned Kenyans – warn tourists never to walk anywhere, ever.) When Kevin and I got lost on the dusty streets of what I now know to be one of Nairobi’s more upscale neighborhoods, my heart pounded as we strode around unfamiliar corners, trying to look purposeful. Was someone going to, like, leap out and stab me in the face? Remembering that tight sense of panic embarrasses me now.

Unfortunately, my tension showed: On a lunch outing during my first week of work, a friend of a coworker asked how long I’d been in Kenya. Three days, I said. “Ah, I can tell,” he replied. “Your colleagues are at ease, but you are…” and he mimed looking around nervously. “Welcome to Kenya,” he went on. “Be at home!”

Mortified and apologetic, I tried my best. We got a furnished apartment; after a month with heavy backpacks, it was pretty heavenly to unpack. We each went to work and found we liked our work environments, and people went out of their way to invite us to do things. We cooked modest meals.

There was the occasional hiccup: One night, riding in a cab with a broken seatbelt, an oily cop with an AK-47 intercepted us at a makeshift checkpoint and successfully intimidated me into bribing him about four dollars to avoid being arrested. (Which he had no grounds to do, I know now, but at the time I wasn’t quick-witted enough to ask for evidence of the applicable traffic law.) Was I falling in with local practicalities, or proving my own gullibility and weak moral fiber? I still feel slimy with guilt, thinking about it.

We offset the occasional discomfort with some fun things. Some of which are shown in this motley little set of photos from our first couple of weeks. Months ago, when I promised photos of baby elephants and regular giraffes? Finally finally, here those are.

Aaagggghhhh, I know! So cute!

The unsurprising punch line is that I have learned to be at home. It took me a little longer than it took Kevin, but these days, I really like it here – in the staunch, outsize way we tend to like things that require a fair amount of effort. There are dangers and inconveniences, but they’re OUR dangers and inconveniences. And while I feel foolish thinking of my anxious early days, I’m also a little proud: I was terrified, but at least I hung in for the reward, you know? And now, when our friends say “you’ll be back,” I think they may be right.