Surely it’s not all perfect, right?

We all know too well how easy it is to create a picture perfect image of your life on social media. The beautiful places I visit and the amazing people I meet are indeed making this trip a once in a lifetime experience. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my share of chin quivering moments!

Otherness

I have always had the comfort (and privilege) to not be the odd one out… to remain anonymous in a sea of people… That is impossible here!

Rwandans love a good stare – I’ve had children freeze on the street, their eyes fixated on me; I’ve had women pause their conversation to measure me up; and on a daily basis I have a good fifty builders walking to their construction site whispering ‘mazungu mazungu’.

Of course, this can get old very quickly – so what do I do?

With children I tend to ask their name – this gets a few excited giggles, a high pitched ‘GOOD MORNING’ and after that they run away. With women I tend to smile and greet, which always breaks the tension. And with the builders… I just stare back until they turn away.

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Keeping healthy

Taking my malaria pill is part of my morning routine – this is followed by fun side effects, such as burning in my throat, feeling nauseous and tired and at times throwing up. The malaria pills also make me much more prone to sunburn, so I lather myself up with SPF50 and gather all the dust of Kigali on my skin!

In the evenings, I choke on the stink of DEET to keep the mosquitos off me and still get bit; so my bed time routine involves a lot of anti-itch cream and aloe vera for the sunburn.

It would be so much easier (and more attractive!) to not be a sweaty puffy itchy mess most days; but I needed a bit of a kick after five and a half years in the safety and comfort of the Canary Wharf playpen.

And if that means I have to suffer a bit of physical discomfort, I’ll take that any day… Plus, you should see my tan right now!

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Being in the present

Something I didn’t expect to struggle with was balancing being in the present and wishing time would go by faster so I can reconnect with my loved ones.

I am already more than five weeks into my fellowship and on a daily basis I have to remind myself to enjoy the now. As time is flying by, I can see this brilliant experience being over in a heart beat and I will be kicking myself later on, if I spent most of it counting down days until it was over!

So I say yes to every new experience that comes my way; I am more relaxed about my personal time; and I welcome new people into my life with open arms.

And when my chin does start to quiver, I dig into my emergency stash of Rafaello, send a few ‘Help!’ text messages and take a deep breath, as the texts I get back read ‘You are awesome, stop it!’

And if that doesn’t help, I just order more wine…

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So what do I do at work, besides creating office spaces by beautiful lakes?

I remember writing about my responsibilities as a Kiva Fellow in one my earlier posts – of course at that point I was only a few days into the role and barely knew what I was talking about. So what’s the reality?

Borrower verification

A borrower verification (BV) is essentially an audit that Kiva conducts on all its field partners to check adherence to Kiva policies and processes. As part of it, I visit a randomly selected group of borrowers and check information regarding them, their loan and their interactions with the field partner / Kiva.

Whilst I cannot believe I have turned to the dark side (apologies to all the auditors out there!), the BVs are actually the best way to meet locals in their homes or businesses in remote areas of the country . As a tourist I would never have the chance to meet these awesome people!

Creating a safe and relaxed environment is key when it comes to the BV as it can be very daunting when a random white lady comes to your house with tons of paperwork, check lists to tick and asks to take pictures of you.

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Content collection

This is where the real fun begins! I get to spend time with the borrowers and learn how they spend their day to day, how the loan has helped them and what their plans are for the future.

I have met incredibly resourceful and innovative people and will be blogging about my visits on the Kiva.org website (ask me for links!). Some highlights include:

  • A local grocer bought an electricity voucher terminal for her shop so that her community don’t have to trek all the way to town to top up their electricity
  • A 24-year old woman set up her own egg wholesale business and literally sells thousands of eggs a day
  • A mother of eight taught herself how to use the knitting machine and now has a contract with the local school to knit the kids’ school uniforms

It is essential I connect with the borrowers as otherwise the content (stories, pictures, videos) just wont be great – we crack jokes, we share personal stories and I try to draw similarities between our lives as much as possible (for example, I’m as old as your oldest daughter; or my mum also used to make clothes for me when I was a kid).

And even then it is hard to make a Rwandan smile! It is almost impossible…

So what do I do? My current strategy (whilst ridiculous) has been very successful – I burst out laughing myself, they then think I’m weird and start laughing at me and hey presto – awesome smiley happy borrowers!

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Process improvement with the field partner

This is where I feel most at home as I do this every day at EY. Understanding how the field partner works, what are the areas that are annoying or difficult for them and then figuring out what we can improve.

This can involve learning a new Excel formula, understanding how to take good pictures or learning how to write inspiring borrower profiles.

As I’m still only a month in, I’m sure I’ll be undertaking plenty of other activities so watch this space…

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Five things that locals find funny about me, the mazungu!

1. I can easily gather a crowd… well… more like a mob of children!

As one of my primary responsibilities here is to visit borrowers, I have the pleasure of travelling around the country to the most amazing remote villages.

As our car slowly makes its way around the busy village streets, children start screaming: “Listen everyone, there is a MAZUNGU IN THE CAR!!!”

This is followed by clapping, screaming and running after the car. In one village they started ringing bicycle bells to gather more people to observe this blonde being

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2. I am not a fan of the African massage

The main roads in Rwanda are perfect, well maintained and relatively safe, if you ignore the hyperactive bus drivers

Once you get off the main road though, you begin to enjoy the wonders of the African massage – the car is either vertically going up or vertically going down a hill or a ditch… on the narrowest of roads… next to a 30 metre drop…

My driver is used to me freaking out by now and he laughs when I jump or press my feet on the floor of the car as that could somehow stop it!

3. I know five Kinyarwanda words and keep on saying them over and over

Kinyarwanda is as complicated and unique as Estonian and my efforts in learning the language have so far only resulted in mere pleasantries

So if you want to melt some Rwandan hearts (trust me, it always works!) and make the whole room laugh all you need to do is stumble through the following sentence:

Mwaramutse, nitwa Sandra, amakuru?

[Good morning, my name is Sandra, how are you?]

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4. I can’t recognise any of the crops the borrowers grow

My translator stops at every new vegetable patch we walk past and says – Sandra do you know what this is?! My usual answer is no… so we stop, we look and we learn – cassava, coffee beans, tea…

We did get to a potato field once and as a proud Estonian I declared my grandmother grows these as well – they were very happy about my knowledge!

5. I find normal things funny

I guess the funniest thing is that the things I find funny are completely normal to the locals. What do you mean you don’t put goats on motor cycles in London… or carry ten mattresses  on your head… or stuff as many carrots in a duffle bag as possible?!

I drive around the country with my car crew screaming: “Sandra, look, it’s CRAZY!!!”

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The food in Rwanda

I must say, being Estonian has really paid off when it comes to food! Rwandan cuisine is as simple and basic as traditional Estonian dishes.

Breakfast

There is something that Rwanda does a lot better than Estonia, UK and Europe as a whole though… and that is cheap delicious tropical fruit. My breakfast is usually just that- mangoes, passion fruit (40p for half a kilo!), tamarillo and so on!

Lunch

Lunch is a big deal here as a lot of the locals only have a cup of tea for both breakfast and dinner, making lunch the only proper meal of the day.

People always say that I eat too little as my lunch portions are… well… regular sized. I usually just explain to them I also eat at night and that tends to soothe their worries about my malnutrition!

The most traditional Rwandan lunch is the buffet and this is for two reasons – first, it is the only way you can get to eat your food in less than an hour (the service here is fabulously slow!) and second, you can pile as much food on your plate as you wish

What does the buffet offer? A wide variety of starches – banana stew, chips, rice, maize mash, banana mash, cassava, beans, pumpkin. Some vegetables – usually ground cassava leaves. And ONE piece of meat per head – strict rules!

Below are three lunch options across the price range – £1.20, £2.50 and £3.50 respectively

Snacks

Eating on the street or in public (other than restaurants) is prohibited therefore snacking isn’t really a thing here.

So to combat this, Rwandans have come up with the concept of a milk bar. A milk bar is a place where grown men and women go to get a pint of warm milk or cold buttermilk (keefir) accompanied by a muffin / samosa /  fried dough ball. A glass of milk and a muffin will cost you 30p.

Drinking milk has historically meant you are well off as it implies you own cows and Rwandans LOVE both cows and milk!

For me, this habit of drinking milk just takes me back to bed time in Estonia where mum served warm milk with honey!

Dinner

Patience is a virtue when it comes to ordering food at a restaurant. The fastest I’ve got my food has been 50 minutes after ordering (and this was in an empty restaurant with three waiters and two chefs).

Kigali actually has a lot of variety when it comes to restaurants but for the time being I’ll focus on more traditional dishes. My favourite is sambaza – fried little fish. Brochette (kebab / sashlik) is also very popular; as are all kinds of stews – below is a chicken and banana stew.

Drinks

Rwandan’s love beer and produce tons of it in the country. Fanta is also a big thing here, more so than Coke.

Whether you order a soft drink or beer, the waiter always gives you an option to have the drink warm, which always makes me chuckle.

African tea has become my personal favourite – warm milk, tea, ginger and sugar!

A day in the life of a rural Rwandan woman

I had the pleasure of joining Ran, the other Kiva fellow here in Rwanda, for an outing to the country side to visit a women’s co-operative that provides a glimpse into the daily lives of rural Rwandan women.

The initiative empowers women by giving them an independent source of income as well as show off their skills to mazungus like us.

First, let me set the scene

We were invited into one of the lady’s homes – this consisted of two small buildings with a courtyard in between for the cow pen. The buildings consisted of a living room, two single bedrooms, a small kitchen and storage space.

The only room that had electricity was the living room and there was no running water.

The buildings were surrounded by land growing bananas, cassava, avocados, Irish potatoes. In addition there was enough space for a cow, a pig and a few goats.

Activity one – food prep

Our first task was to help with lunch prep – peeling the cassava roots and popping beans out of pods.

As there is no water in the house and we wanted to boil the cassava and beans, we trekked down the hilltop to fetch water with old oil canisters. The ladies make this 30 min return trek three times a day.

Rwandans are often surprised of how much water I drink. I guess it is a lot easier if all I have to do is turn on the tap; I doubt I’d be as lavish if I had to trek 30 min to fill my bottle!

Activity two – all the things you can do with bananas

I’ve mentioned before that Rwandan people are very resourceful – this is especially evident when it comes to the beloved banana tree

We learnt how to make rope out of dried banana tree leaves (to be used as a leash for the goat or to fix roof pillars together).

We also learnt how to make banana beer. Now I’m sure you cannot wait to make your own banana beer so here’s the recipe:

  • Dig a hole in the ground and fill it with dried banana leaves
  • Set the leaves on fire and wait for the leaves to burn completely
  • Grab a bunch of raw bananas and place them in the hole
  • Cover the bananas with soil and fresh banana tree leaves and let it do its magic for five days
  • After five days, dig out the bananas and peel them
  • Place the peeled bananas in some boiling water
  • Go to the field and grab a good handful of hay
  • Squish the bananas with the hay until all the banana flesh is in a big clump in the hay
  • Leave the banana juice to ferment for two days
  • Voila – you’ve got yourself some homemade banana beer!

Activity three – make your own bricks for the house

No more Homebase or Ikea for me – I am fully qualified to make my own bricks. Just mix water, earth and stones with your bare feet; grab a brick moulder; fill it with your ‘cement’ and let it dry in the sun

What did I take away from this experience?

It showed me how hard Rwandan women work to provide for their families, to make a home for their kids and to empower each other to be more independent.

It was an absolute honour to spend time with the joyful ladies and I thank Azizi Life Experience for creating this opportunity in the first place!

 

Ubukwe: the wedding

As my current motto is saying ‘yes’ to as many things as possible, I found myself attending a country side wedding this weekend. Little did I know that I’d end up in the middle of a field, 30 minutes away from any ‘formal’ roads, next to the Ugandan border.

So, how did the wedding compare to the English and Estonian weddings that I’ve attended?

  • God: As I’ve mentioned before, Rwanda is a very religious country and God and prayer were ever present in the wedding. The bride entered the church whilst the choir was singing songs glorifying Jesus Christ. The sermon was administered by the local pastor, passages were read from the bible and the couple was blessed in the presence of God
  • Kissing: Contrary to the kissfest of a traditional Estonian wedding, there were no overt signs of affection displayed throughout the wedding. The couple hugged when exchanging rings and held hands during the reception but that was it. Although it was clear the two loved each other deeply and were so so happy!
  • Guest list: The guest list has been the pain of every married couple I know. Not in Rwanda… The more the merrier! In fact, thanks to us being in the middle of the country side, pretty much the whole village of the groom could attend the wedding. As I sat in the middle of the field, an old Estonian song was playing in my head ‘Terve vald oli kokku aetud, kihelkond kokku kutsutud!’
  • Food: Far from a fancy three course sit down dinner, the Rwandan wedding was a true country feast. You grab a plate and the buffet serves you rice, potatoes, banana mash, cassava, one piece of meat (I asked for two and won the battle!),sauce and a soda (no alcohol was served in the wedding). You then find an empty plastic chair somewhere in the shade and try your best not to spill the food on yourself.
  • Entertainment: We had two MCs for the night, cracking jokes in Kinyarwanda so I have no idea what they were talking about, but people were laughing so I assume they were doing a good job. There was also traditional Rwandan dances and songs of prayer by a local choir. As the sun was setting in the middle of the field, this made a beautiful scene of serenity!

As we were three and a half hours away from Kigali we left straight after presenting our gifts to the couple (a stereo and DVD player from the whole Urwego crew). But I know the wedding went on for hours with a long list of guests presenting their gifts, accompanied by well wishes and long speeches.

I am so grateful to Urwego for making me part of their family and inviting me to attend this wedding… And I wish all the best to the newlyweds!

Umuganda: making our country great

Young Rwandans are proud of their country… Proud of how far they’ve come in such a short space of time… And most importantly, proud to feel personal ownership of this success story…

Every last Saturday of the month the Rwandan people come together and do chores to improve their community space.

This phenomenon is called ‘umuganda’, which can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’.

As umuganda fell on the first weekend I was here, I decided to get involved by joining a colleague of mine for the event. I also stayed at her place for the night as umuganda starts at 8 am and you are not allowed to drive after that.

The half day activity was split into two. The first half we cleared a meadow of grass using machetes – I must say, my efforts were mainly for the photo op rather than actual contribution as it turns out I am useless at handling one.

The second half of the morning was taken up by a community meeting where they announced election results, shared government plans and a special guest – a congressman – gave advice on a range of topics including nutrition, women’s rights and hygiene.

I have been so impressed with the resourcefulness of the Rwandan people.

Not only is umuganda the perfect medium to heal the community and make people feel like one again. It is also one of the only chances the government has to reach its remote communities that often times have limited access to electricity (i.e. radio and TV) and may not be able to read (i.e. newspapers, leaflets).

Seeing the congressman giving advice and challenging old beliefs was very eye opening. For example, Rwandans tend not to eat a lot of vegetables as historically it was seen as the food of the poor. In addition, it can be hard to ensure veggies are clean if not cooked through. The daily cuisine therefore has much more of an emphasis on starches (cassava, maise, rice, potatoes). So the congressman was trying to challenge this belief by sharing stories of children’s health, the importance of vitamins and good hygiene practices.

One of my personal goals was to understand how institutions operate in a completely different environment and I am so grateful to see glimpses of this every day!