Night fishing on Lake Kivu in traditional fishing boats

Since my first trip to Lake Kivu, I’ve been fascinated with the beautiful wooden fishing boats that set out each night in search of sambaza, the little fish. I didn’t expect to end up on one of those myself, but there I was, a few months later boarding a traditional boat in the middle of the lake in pitch black darkness – yet again, this was all thanks to VAYANDO. My partner in crime was Marybeth, the Ghana Kiva Fellow!


We decided to start the day in style, enjoying a pitcher of wine, fried sambaza and fish brochette at the Cormoran Lodge in Kibuye. As the darkness set in, we headed to our motor boat that would bring us to the traditional fishing boats, which had already made themselves comfortable in the middle of the lake.


We gracefully (not) got ourselves from the motor boat to the fishing boat without falling into the lake and sat down next to the captain, Aphrodite.

The guys set off every night at 6pm and stay on the lake until 5 am – each night they put their nets in twice. The boats come in sets of three and each boat has 3 guys on it, manning the nets. The captain is in charge of choosing the destinations for the night, refilling the petroleum lamps and managing the crew throughout the night.


The guys pass time by taking naps and having some beer, so the general mood was nice and merry. Not to mention the petroleum fumes, which will get anyone slightly tipsy! These lamps are used to attract the sambaza; additional halogen lights are also dropped in the water to attract more fish to the nets underneath the boat.


Pulling out the nets was hard work as they go well into the depths of the lake and even after a solid 30 minutes of watching the guys do it, I still don’t understand how the boat operates! After all that hard work, the guys ended up with a modest 3 kilos of sambaza, which would get them roughly 4000 RWF (that is about £4!).


As Lake Kivu is a methane lake, fishing can sometimes be tricky – some men have day jobs for additional income and look for further work during the week off they get every month. It is however a beautiful tradition that is passed on from father to son and the captain proudly hopes to see his boy take over his position in the future.

As we left the boat to head back to solid ground, we wished them luck with their next destination for the night – I hope they got more kilos that time!





My day with the talented embroidery ladies of the Ibaba co-operative

I didn’t know how much free time I would have in Rwanda before I got here, so I thought I better find myself a hobby. This was long due since one of the reasons I needed a sabbatical was the realisation that I hadn’t had a hobby since I started working at EY (and I thought that was a very sad position to be in!).

I decided my hobby should be traditional Estonian embroidery (since I am rock’n’roll like that…) and I was so happy to find an embroidery co-operative here in Rwanda, bursting with amazing talent!


Thanks to VAYANDO I had the pleasure of spending a day with the Ibaba ladies – an embroidery co-operative that has been going since the 70s. The ladies patiently helped me and my friends through some simple designs, whilst practicing their English and having a good giggle. Imagine a fun conversation involving ‘What is your name?’ *giggles* ‘Sandra’ *giggles* ‘Where are you from?’ *giggles* ‘Estonia’ *giggles* ‘What do you do?’ *giggles* ‘Volunteer’ ‘OOOOOH’ *giggles*. It was perfect!

So what does it take to ‘master’ embroidery in 2 hours?

  1. Choose your design


2. Choose your colours


3. Get cracking


4. And keep on going


5. And going


6. With your patient teacher sweating next to you as you consistently take too long of a stitch…


7. And voila… with our fingers hurting from the needle but our little geeky hearts full of joy, we ended up with great goodie bags that had a hand made design on them.


I want to say it was 100% made by us… but honestly, the ladies did about 70% as they are true perfectionists and very proud of their trade (plus, we’d probably still be there, embroidering away…)

Thank you Ibaba ladies, you are absolutely brilliant!





Fun times in Uganda – white water rafting, rhinos and pesto pasta

Sometimes you need a holiday from your sabbatical… Luckily for me, I had some friends from London going to Uganda to run a marathon (!!!), so I decided to join them for a week of adventures. Here is a snapshot of some of our fun times

White water rafting on the Nile

My dear mum didn’t realise that I slept on top of a volcano until she read my blog, so this time I prepared her a bit better – basically… mum you’re not going to like this! I haven’t experienced anything quite like it – the fear, the adrenaline, the complete lack of control. And yet somehow I still managed to have the best time!

We did eight rapids on a stretch of a few kilometres on the Nile. Throughout this, we managed to flip twice and I had to be ‘saved’ by a safety canoe during one of those times as I slowly waved bye to my fellow rafters as the current swept me off.

The crew was a amazing – a special shout out goes to Juma – he really knows how to handle a group of 25 screaming mazungus!

Getting our TOWIE on

Who knew all you needed for a Tango-tan was to ride a bicycle through Ugandan villages for a couple of hours… and hey presto – your skin is a beautiful shade of terracotta. Our Jinja village bike tour was absolutely brilliant with a  couple of firsts for me – I had never seen how passion fruit are grown (its a vine!); also I saw my favourite creative kids toy yet – a maize cob turned into a wonderful doll with a bit of plastic wrapped around as a dress. By the way… these legs aren’t mine – just had to mention it!

It took a good rubbing to clean off all the dirt… luckily no one cares how Tango you are when you’re drinking Nile on the Nile!

Getting up close and personal with rhinos… and chimps… and elephants… and giraffes… and crocs… and hippos

Yes, we really went for it with all the animal experiences and it was so worth it!

Being less than 5 metres away from six female rhinos is just a little bit daunting. The Ziwa rhino sanctuary only started with a handful of rhinos and have now grown to 16 rhinos in total – one of which is called Obama as his mum is American and dad Kenyan! The long term aim of the sanctuary is to get to 30+ specimen in order to release them back to the wild

Our chimps visit was a bit bitter sweet as it truly demonstrated the devastating effects that humans can have on the animal kingdom. A group of 40 chimps are forced to live in a 150m stretch of forest, surrounded by sugar cane fields, which previously were all beautiful lush forests. They are becoming hungry and frustrated and keep on attacking village kids who collect water from the well in the chimp forest. I was left saddened and frustrated… Greed just isn’t worth losing these beautiful chimps over!

Unfortunately my iPhone camera isn’t good enough to capture the chimps – I have a lot of pictures of dark forest with some black blob in the middle of it.

Our loose cannon driver Moses fashioned himself as a bit of a tour guide, so we ended up on a short game drive throughout Murchison before our Nile boat cruise. We ended up seeing herds of elephants, buffalos, giraffes… and my favourite – warthogs! But the real treat awaited us on the Nile – never have I ever seen a crocodile smiling or a hippo yawning before. I felt like a little kid again, giggling away!

Getting soaked in the Murchison falls

Picture the entire force of the Nile trying to squeeze itself through six metres worth of space… and you get the magnificent Murchison falls! We got absolutely soaked by the falls as we were hiking alongside it, amazed by the beautiful rainbow right in the middle of the falls!

Oh and a random fact for you… Hemingway’s plane crashed near the falls as well

My final destination – Kampala – and its air-conditioned malls

It was time for another Kiva reunion, as I joined Sravya in Kampala. I was so pleased to experience another Kiva fellow’s life! And when I say experience her life, I mean eat pesto pasta, ramen, chocolate mousse, tiramisu… drink red wine… have air-conditioning… enjoy a power shower!

I did manage to squeeze in a couple of cultural experiences among the eating galore… For example, I visited the second largest mosque in Africa, the Gaddafi mosque. I also climbed the mosque’s 100m tower – as I clung to the tower walls, my guide Yussuf suggested I don’t look up or down but only at my toes… I am definitely not a fan of heights!

Uganda, you have treated me well – I shall see you again in a few days at Lake Bunyonyi for another adventure!



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



Gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park

I remember one of the first thoughts I had when I found out I was coming to Rwanda for my fellowship – GORILLAS! Since the age of 10 I have been wanting to meet gorillas and orang-utans and this week I have made one of these dreams true by trekking in the Volcanoes National Park here in Rwanda.

It was an intense day that started with a 4 am wake up call and a 2 hour drive from Kigali to the park entrance in Musanze. We were greeted my local dancers and singers who tried to entertain and keep awake a nervous and tired set of tourists.

Once we had been entertained and served some coffee, the park ranger Felicien gave us a briefing about our hike – we were going to hike a medium trek to visit the Sabyinyo Gorilla Group, with the oldest silverback in the mountain range called Guhonda. We also learnt about how to behave:

  • No eye contact and pointing – it’s a sign of threat
  • No bags – the youngsters get too curious
  • If the silver back gives you a warning, kneel down and lower your head

And we were off… An hour and a half of trekking in the jungle – ankle deep in mud and buffalo poop, vicious ants and stingy nettle, slipping and sliding through the bamboo trails, hacking new trails with a machete… What an experience!

It was worth it though… as we walked into a clear area of the forest where the family had settled for the day, enjoying their brunch… I must admit, I did choke up a bit! They are the most magnificent beasts!

The silverback was a true old man – lying on the floor, napping, yawning, scratching and farting. Whenever he felt like we were getting too close to his babies, he got up, walked towards us and we slowly (with a lot of panic inside that we were all trying to hide!) backed away.


The ladies all had young babies with them that they nursed, carried on their backs and presented to the silverback. Whenever he spoke to them, they spoke back and followed his guidance on where to go next.


The kids of course were the cutest – playing with others, curiously staring at us, banging their chest, kissing each other. I could stare at them all day – their little feet, their big eyes – pure joy!



This was truly a once in a life time experience… What a privilege!




My Rwanda Top 5 so far!

It has been two months since I was crying my eyes out next to a puzzled old lady on an Ethiopian air flight, on my way to Kigali! There have been many highs since then and I wanted to share my top 5 so far

5. Dress up time

Meeting borrowers is a lot of fun. One of my highlights was visiting a couple in the country side. I asked if the wife would like to join her husband in the picture… She instantly perked up and rushed to the bedroom. Five minutes later and dressed to impress, she returned! Her husband started clapping with joy and we all laughed so hard

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4. Who needs an iPad anyway?

One of the most fun things about walking around remote Rwandan villages is discovering all the inventive kids games and toys. I’ve seen footballs made out of cloth and tied together with a piece of string, I’ve seen rags used to put together a makeshift doll, which is then tied to the girl’s back just like their mum carried them as a baby. The coolest however is the tire / stick combination – kids steering an old tire with a wooden stick or a bamboo branch, running around the village.


3. Awkward gifts

Borrowers are often so happy you visit them, they want to give you a gift. My favourite so far has been three pairs of leopard print underpants! I mean… aren’t I the luckiest girl ever!

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During one of my countryside borrower visits I heard the sound of singing coming towards me from the other side of the mountain – I quickly took out my camera and was lucky enough to capture these men, working hard and spurring each other on!

1.Impromptu toddler hugs

I have had many instances where I’m walking down the road and a local toddler runs to me and wraps their arms around my knees. My favourite toddler incident however happened at Kimironko market. I was minding my own business, choosing tomatoes when I felt that someone was touching my knee. Freaked out, I looked down, only to find a two year old girl had grabbed the skin on my knee in one had and was stroking it with her other hand!