My Rwandan kitenge adventures – haute couture, watch out!

Ever since I arrived in Rwanda and saw local ladies walking around in beautiful kitenge designs (traditional East African fabric), I’ve wanted to get some clothes made for myself. And I’m glad to say, that time has finally arrived!

As my mazungu status tends to add 50%-100% in price to absolutely everything, I asked my colleague to help me in my quest to dress head to toe in kitenge. Here are our adventures:

Chapter 1: the fabric

Kimironko market has a whole section of stalls fully packed with colourful kitenge in every style imaginable. Looking for some bright orange fabric with dollar signs on it? What about a deep red with some scattered worm pattern (apparently they were beans, but I’m unconvinced)?

My main aim was to find something that represents Rwanda but also can be worn in an office environment in London. The way this got described to the lady selling the fabric was – something mazungu-like! So here’s my mazungu-like selection – four types of fabric, a total of 8 metres for £18.50


Chapter 2: the designs

It is customary to bring designs with you to the seamstress, so I had a fun Google session to figure out exactly what I wanted. I’m not completely sure how the seamstresses make clothes without the cut out templates – I guess they’re just super badass and can go by a simple image. I decided I wanted a dress, two pencil skirts, shorts and four pillow cases


Chapter 3: the seamstress

A week later we headed to Kigali Town Centre to find the seamstress recommended by another colleague – apparently good price and good quality.

She took my measurements and complemented my waistline, answered all my questions with a lot of patience (there were many) and promised to get the clothes done in a week! Now all I had to do is wait…

 Chapter 4: the disaster

A week later we set off to visit the seamstress again – my colleague had called in advance and got some worrying news – the seamstress had improvised…

The result – every single item other than my pillow cases were made in the wrong fabric; I was not able to get into my pencil skirt as the zip was too short; and she had made two skirts in the same fabric, one of which made me look like a little hippo!

If the hungry hungry hippos were blonde Estonian women, this is what they’d look like


Chapter 5: the redemption

After talking through each change that had to be made and how improvisation really isn’t the best idea, we returned a week later. This time, there was success – I was able to get in and out of the clothes and the quality of the sowing was perfect.

Whilst we took the scenic route, we did end up in a great place and I now have a fantastic set of kitenge clothes to remember my Rwandan adventures!

Full disclosure: Some wine may have been consumed to take the edge off this experience…



My Rwandan confessions – Crocs, road rage and Eminem

To celebrate my 3rd month here in Rwanda, I wanted to get a few things off my chest… Inspired by our Kiva Fellows video we created for the new cohort, ‘these are my confessions’!

  1. I wear Crocs to work and think it’s acceptable (it’s like walking on air!)
  2. I escape to Inzora (my favourite rooftop café) when I get tired of being called a mazungu and have granola with yoghurt to cheer myself up. I saw a t-shirt in the market the other day that said ‘My name is not Mazungu’ and I so wanted to buy it!IMG_5778
  3. My legs are completely covered in mosquito bites and big bruises as apparently I am unable to climb off a moto without hurting myself (I’ve been told I include too many photos of my manky feet therefore no picture evidence available this time!)
  4. I suffer from a serious case of road rage whenever I am on the back of a moto, swearing and waving at drivers who dare to cross my wayIMG_7981
  5. I have a guy at the market who calls me ‘London’ and gives me free passion fruit because I always let him walk me round
  6. I have only learnt five words in Kinyarwanda… Mwaramutse, amakuru, niemeza, murakoze, oya / yego – it’s embarrassing
  7. I welled up when I saw the gorillas (sorry, this is just an excuse to add another gorilla picture to the blog!)IMG_7588
  8. I have got used to the fact that a man called Mucyo washes my dirty underwear and a man called Eminem guards my sleep at night
  9. I think beans and rice is nice… and I think I’ll miss it when I go back home!
  10. I have managed to fall in love with this little princess and am already choking up thinking about having to say good bye…IMG_7725


3000m elevation change in 24 hrs – my hike to Nyiragongo volcano in the DRC

I am proud to say that I have taken my limited hiking experience to the next level by conquering (and sleeping on top of) Mount Nyarigongo, an active volcano with a lava lake in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As always, I kept my knowledge of the hike details as limited as possible but this is what I did know before I started my hike – DRC is rarely included in your travel insurance, Nyiragongo has become more and more active in the past few months with a new vent opening in March, it is zero degrees on top and I can’t remember what being cold feels like anymore.

DRC and Goma

DRC has a big UN presence and we saw a lot of peace keeping trucks along our way through Goma. It was interesting to see just how different DRC was from Rwanda – loud music playing in the streets, green plastic bags on house doors to signify that local beer can be purchased there and wooden houses decorated with intricate carving work – I loved it!

The hike stats

Our hike started at 1,994m elevation and ended at 3,470m elevation, which means we experienced a 3,000m elevation change in 24 hours. The trek was 8 km in length and took us roughly 6 hours to get to the top and 4.5 hours to walk down the next day.

The trek was split into 4 chunks – first 2.5 km through the woods on wet earth, next 1km on volcanic gravel, then 1km on smooth volcanic rock and the final bang – 3.5 km with roughly 1,000m elevation on slippery sleets of volcanic rock (the last 25 minutes was extra special as it started pouring down and the ‘path’ was literally vertical!).

We carried our own clothes but had two porters carry our food and water, sleeping bags and charcoal for the fire up top.


The lava lake

Of course all of it was completely worth it once we reached the top, panting and freezing cold. We quickly changed clothes (two layers of trousers, top, hoodie, rain coat, scarf – and I was mildly comfortable…) and hurried to the crater. The view was amazing – a bubbling sizzling lava lake that smelled like rotten eggs and sounded like the sea – we were all mesmerised!


The night on top

Our home for the night was a ‘chalet’ – a metal tent like construction with a mattress and sleeping bag inside. The toilet… was a rope climb down the volcano on top of a cliff edge – breath taking views and definitely worthy of a ‘Top 10 toilets with views’ badge!

Our porter made us a fire and we had other travellers join us, sharing champagne and caviar (!!!), quiche and whiskey and a few tunes on the harmonica. It was a perfect evening on top of the volcano with the lava lake glowing in the background.

The morning after and the climb down

A 5 am wake up call, another rope climb to the toilet and a mist blanket so thick you couldn’t see two metres away was what awaited us in the morning.


And then there was the climb down… and it was bad!

I now know what it feels like to be a baby deer trying to walk for the first time as that was my level of skill for the first two hours of the walk back down. I was glued to my porter, Jada, who reassured me with every single step – slowly slowly Sandra!

Half way through the toughest part of the descent he took out two candies from his pocket – one for him and one for me – he laughed and said ‘Motivation!’

The verdict

One of the coolest things I’ve ever done – the fact I was in DRC, the fact I climbed and slept on top of an active volcano, the fact I saw a lava lake, the fact that I was actually able to do it all… Makes up for the fact that I am barely able to walk today and grabbing my moto helmet from the floor this morning proved nearly impossible…


My new partner: Kepler University in Kigali

I’m spending the last one and a half months of my fellowship with Kepler –  a nonprofit university program where students get the best of online learning paired with in-person seminars.  All students graduate with a U.S. accredited degree and they’re currently tracking 100% employment rate post graduation.

Kepler is viewed as the top performing university in Rwanda – last year they had 6,000 applicants for 150 spots!



So what is Kiva doing at Kepler?

All students are required to have a laptop prior to commencing their studies and as the majority of Rwandans cannot afford a personal laptop, they need to take out a loan to purchase one. And that’s where Kiva comes in!

Kepler is pretty new to Kiva so I have quite a few big tasks here:

  • industrialise and document best in class processes for Kiva
  • train existing and new staff on Kiva processes
  • raise student awareness on Kiva and what it means to take out a loan
  • prepare Kepler for potential future loan products


What’s Kepler like as an employer?

My office hours are 9-5 now (yes, life is good!); I spend the majority of my afternoons working in the Kepler garden; and I am surrounded by talented and ambitious university students!


Oh yeah, and I now take the moto to work. I must confess, I only look happy in the video – all other times when I’m on a moto I’m a cranky mazungu telling the driver to slow down, to not swerve between cars and to not try to rip me off.

Highlights from my Rwandan borrower visits

As I’ve tried to keep this blog more focused on my personal travels and experiences, I’ve  been posting blogs regarding my fun borrower visits on the official website.

Now that I have finished my time at Urwego Opportunity Bank and have moved on to serve as a fellow at Kepler , I thought I’d post links to the Urwego borrower stories I wrote here – to celebrate the awesome women I met throughout the 2 months I spent at Urwego!

Xaverine – a brilliant entrepreneur who knits school uniforms for children

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Olive – a young business woman taking over the egg wholesale world

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Laetitia and Delianne – growing their business through innovation