The senses of (slow) travel immersion

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A visit to Nyungwe national park

I’ll admit that I’ve definitely been slacking in terms of keeping this blog updated but there are many reasons for that. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this post, you’ll get a sense of why I haven’t really had time to keep this page updated. Much has happened since my last post and with every passing day, I feel like I’ve been in this beautiful country far longer. I’d definitely say I have managed to slowly but actively immerse myself into this society while also making great progress on my project. As the title of this post dictates and with the use of the 5 human senses (not sure about the 6th one), I am going to explore and share with you the ways through which I am understanding the Rwandan society.

Paying Close Attention (Sight) – This is perhaps the broadest aspect of my immersion, mainly because it pretty much covers everything I am doing in Rwanda. I am certainly glad that Rwanda is not a “touristy” destination despite the fact that there are tons of expats and tourist attractions all around. Actually what I have found is that, understanding the local culture and doing what locals do is what makes this place so enjoyable. For instance, I’ve recently started visiting the local bar near my house to catch up on the latest soccer (actual football) games and the feel and the atmosphere of watching the game with locals definitely can’t be beat. I mean it sucks when you’re the only one supporting the opposing team of the local favorite but the food and the merrymaking surrounding a football match is enough to make any football traditionalist like myself excited. Furthermore, the sight and experience of the life in my transactions at the local market is becoming one of my favorite daily activities. The women in the market are really helpful, especially the fruit ladies who always give a good deal and amicable call me “chef”. Maybe it’s just because they want to attract a customer. Well it’s a good thing I have managed to memorize the local names of the currency and the food/products to increase my bargaining chance.

Food related matters aside, I am a big fan of the moto-taxis scattered all around the city. Although there are buses, nothing beats a moto-taxi ride around town during the sunset. Since Rwanda lives up to the name of “Land of a thousand hills”, it’s honestly breathtaking to watch the scattering of colors across the sky in the evenings. For instance, I’ve recently been going for runs with my neighbor and although the trails around he leads us on makes my knees wobble, the views of the city and neighborhoods are totally worth it. I realize that this might sound regular to someone, but I believe it’s the unique pace of life that makes these sights/experiences more desirable and memorable.

Fieldwork (Touch/Hands-On) – Ever since I started working alongside HDI, not only have I been acquiring a lot of organic data for my research, I’m also benefiting from my relationships with locals I volunteer with. Aside from trading fun personal stories and working on projects together, I also get to do a lot of fieldwork that makes my inner anthropologist excited and at times sad/frustrated. For instance, I recently went to one of the many impoverished communities outside of Kigali, Masoro with my colleague Claude to conduct a nutrition project assessment. It was my first time leaving the city of Kigali so I was pretty excited to experience what life is like on the other side. I was definitely overwhelmed by what I saw in the community, I don’t think I’ve fully processed it but it was very eye-opening. Long story short, Masoro is a community known for its pottery making traditions dating back many decades. The people the live in Masoro formally belonged to the Batwa/ Twa ethnic group – due to several factors originating from genocide, Rwanda no longer acknowledges the existence of ethnic groups (Hutus, Tutsis and Batwas).

Nevertheless, most of the people in Masoro live in marginality (not allowed to say that but that’s the truth) with extreme poverty and multiple livelihood issues continuously plaguing them. While checking up on the new farm HDI made for the community, Claude and I decided to interview some of the locals to see what other ways the NGO can assist them. We visited several houses where we were warmly received and told about the current issues which had to deal with most people not having access to any lands. The part about this fieldwork that made me frustrated and kinda sad was finding out about the many families and orphaned children who have to live as squatters because of the land issue. I mean it broke my heart to see many of these kids crawl into their make-shift tents on peoples lands when it started raining- it’s currently the rainy season so it pretty much rains every day. Claude and I managed to document a lot of what the people told us which we included in our fieldwork report in an effort to see what the NGO can do to help.

Aside from the community oriented fieldwork, I’ve recently been gaining hands-on training on the several Rwandan laws regarding health issues and the work of grassroots health NGOs. It’s been quite exciting to learn about these laws because they do promote and at times inhibit a lot of much needed health works. Along with the staff of HDI, I’ve been learning about the ways health NGOs can navigate these laws as well as how they can join the ongoing discussions of changing some of the laws. For instance, the law prohibits sex work/ prostitution with offenders (mainly women) being sent to jail as a “method” of rehabilitation – there are more ridiculous to this law by the way. HDI approaches the issues regarding sex work from a rights-based approach, so in short, it hopes to provide sex workers with adequate sexual health education while finding ways of providing these women with “proper” means of making a living. The approaches are a lot but I am quite happy to learning about these aspects of public health work that I actually never envisioned.

The words of the people (Hearing) – Happy Hour isn’t really a concept here but I do love visiting local bars with my colleagues on Thursdays and Fridays. Apart from enjoying some cheap beers and a couple brochettes, I do love conversations we have and the opportunity it gives me to learn more about them. I often try to pose them questions that allows them to get to their deeply ingrained reasons and thoughts regarding their country and their engagement in public health- some of their responses are very personal, others are very straightforward. Through our conversations, I’m realized the most of my colleagues felt drawn to the field of public health because they’ve always felt a sense of “empathy” for those who aren’t as fortunate as they are. Whether it’s through health or development projects, many of these people believe that they cannot just stand and watch as their own people suffer. One person said “I am one of them, I know what it’s like so why not do something with what I have”, another also said “Things used to be worse, why must we stop now that it’s getting better? We have to continue”.

Not sure if I can fully encapsulate what I am hearing in these sentences but I definitely feel really inspired being among these people. They are truly representative of what the Ubuntu ideology preaches and much more. Also, what I am hearing is not only shaped by those I am working with, even in brief conversations with my neighbors, I often capture hints of the growing nature of positivity within this country. Nevertheless, not everything is all sunny and rainbows, some of the people I talk to often express concerns about the general lack of confidence Rwanda has in itself (dependence on foreigners). My firsthand experience of this occurred while I chatting with a worker at the department of health. He said “We Rwandans are doing a lot to improve ourselves but we still need the help of westerners to tell us if what we are doing is right”. Not sure how I felt about his words but I know many African countries have a tendency to rely on western countries.

Memories and similarities (Taste & Smell) – This part is obviously dedicated to the many reasons I’ve become so sentimental in this country and another reason to talk about food. I was recently walking around the neighborhood of Remera when a sudden whiff of a familiar scent put an unending cheesy smile on my face. It wasn’t nothing too special but the familiar smell of ripening mangoes. I quickly felt transported to the time when I was a just a 5yr old boy eagerly picking mangoes with my grandmother in the backyard. Not only was I homesick (Ghana not NYC) but I also found another reason to love this place even more – I actually had to go get mangoes in the market after that. I’ve been encountering many of such little sentimental moments that keeps taking me back home to both NYC and Accra. I’ve also actually started my own ceremony of using my Fridays to try the Rwandan versions of American and Ghanaian food to keep the sentiment and similarities going.

Focusing on West and East African food, there’s quite a lot of similarities although they have distinct differences. I think I’ve narrowed it down to the fact that the flavor as the big difference, West African food is honestly more flavorful. Although that’s a bit of generalized comparison, the ingredients are quite the same but I guess food in the west leaves a bit more of a lasting impression. For instance, there’s Mandazi a popular snack among East African countries that’s often served with tea of coffee. Mandazi reminds me of Bofrot which is served with porridge in Ghana and Nigeria (They call it Puff-Puff). They are very similar in appearance and smell but Mandazi is more like a fried break while Bofrot is flakey on the inside like a donut and mainly served while hot. They are both quite good and very addictive, I think I’d eat a Mandazi everyday if they served it with porridge. Another example is Matoke which is basically plantain and a beans sauce boiled and served together. The food similar to that from the west is Ampesie but the difference is that the ingredients aren’t boiled together. For Ampesie, you boil the plantains or yams separately then you make a stew (sauce/dip) to go with it. Whenever my neighbor is making Matoke, the smell of the plantains make me long and wish for Ampesie – I’m just going to have to cook it one of these days.

Moving on (6th sense?!) – Unbelievable, I only have a month and a few days left in Rwanda. I don’t even know where the time went but I’m looking forward to enjoying the rest of my time here. I also just realized that Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner. I’m not worried about thanksgiving because my family never really celebrated but spending Christmas is going to be a bit weird. My visa in Rwanda ends on December 14th which means I have to be preparing for Ethiopia but Ethiopians don’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th. Hmmm… not sure if my 6th sense is working properly but I’m sure I’ll figure out something fun to do, maybe even take a little detour to an East African country. Who knows… until next time!

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