Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What Life is Like for Other Fidesco Volunteers and My Easter in Rwanda

Pasika Nziza!  That means "Happy Easter" in Kinyarwanda.

Before I get to how I celebrated Easter, I want to write about the beginning of Holy Week so this post flows chronologically.  Rita and I received a call from the Kigali Fidesco volunteers letting us know that a young married Fidesco couple, Quentin and Sabine, was in Rwanda and wanted to visit us.  It turns out that they are volunteers in Lodja, right in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, our neighbor to the west, but they had been temporarily evacuated to a DRC-Rwanda border town because of tribal conflict in their mission area.  Interesting.  We were also invited to join them and the two Kigali volunteers on a day trip to Akagera NP in the east.  You might remember that Rita, Timothee, and I went to Akagera after Christmas, but we were game for a second trip so Rita and I caught a bus to Kigali the day before Palm Sunday so we would be ready for our Rwandan safari on Sunday. 

It was really fun to meet Quentin and Sabine more in depth (they were at the Fidesco training session in August).  It was also enlightening to learn about their way of life in the DR of Congo.  What I'm about to describe is not indicative of all of the DRC, but since it is a huge country and that makes it hard to develop, I'm sure it's true for a lot of the interior.  Wow, Quentin and Sabine painted quite a picture.  They have solar panels on their house, which gives them light in the evening, but there are no wall outlets.  That means no refrigerator, TV, or electronics charging.  The office where they work has a generator so they charge their laptops and cell phones there.  There is no running water.  They have tanks that collect rain water and one of the tanks has a faucet and a connected shower head in the house so they don't have to go outside to bring in the water or shower, but the other two Fidesco volunteers in the city don't have those things.  They have to bring in their water from the outdoor tanks and take sponge baths.  If there's no rain, there's no water.  They don't have a kitchen.  They have to cook with charcoal over miniature clay BBQ's for every hot meal they want.  Just imagine that.  No microwave, stove, or oven.  Only charcoal.  I get so frustrated trying to light charcoal so I can imagine that making a meal is quite an ordeal.  Once they get the charcoal going, there isn't much variety to cook.  At their disposal are rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, manioc and corn flours, fruit, and bread.  They can buy chicken and pork, but they have to eat it while it's fresh because there isn't a fridge.  Can you imagine?  In Rwanda, we eat like kings and queens compared to the Lodja volunteers.  There aren't asphalt or cobblestone roads and even if there were, there are only villages around Lodja so there is nothing to see outside of the city.  The only way to get far from the city is by plane and those don't come around very often.  They were evacuated by a UN-chartered plane and had to follow the updates once they were in Rwanda to learn when there would be a plane back to Lodja.  Wow!  They are certainly getting an African experience, one that is very different than the one I am having.

We had a great time together.  Saturday and Sunday night, the six Fidesco volunteers enjoyed dinner on the Kigali house's patio.  On Sunday we crammed into an SUV for our trip to Akagera and saw animals we didn't see the first time: an elephant, a buffalo close up, and hippos out of the water.  On Monday the couple, Rita, and I said goodbye to the Kigali guys and headed to Butare.  Rita was working so I played the tour guide on Tuesday and Wednesday.  They left on Thursday morning.  I took them to the usual places: the school tour, the market, the cathedral, the coffee shop, and the handicrafts store.  Other than those places, there isn't much to see in Butare.  The main activity when they were here was eating.  Sabine had lost 6 kgs in Congo and Quentin, 10.  That's 13 and 22 pounds!  So I put them on what I called the "get fat plan."  We cooked pizza, a quiche, pancakes, cheeseburgers, etc.  The goal was to help them put on weight but also to treat them to the foods they miss while in Lodja.  There are no cows in Lodja so no hamburgers.  No ovens in Lodja so no quiches or pizzas.  It was great to spoil them while they were here.

Left to right: me, Quentin, Timothee, Jeremie, Sabine, Rita
Clowning around
Once they left on Thursday morning, I headed off to a local Benedictine monastery for an Easter retreat.  Comically, the moto-taxi I was riding ran out of gas twice on the 10 minute ride.  The first time the driver was able to get the motor started again by moving the motorcycle all around so the remaining gas could hit the right spot to burn, but then he ran out of gas again only 300 feet or so from the monastery.  I walked the rest of the way.

My time at the monastery was great.  I read, slept, prayed, ran, and ate.  I turned off my phone.  My room had glass doors facing outside and a covered balcony so I could pray, read, and look out over the grassy garden without getting wet (it rained a lot).  I started reading a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor who was executed by the Nazis just months before the war ended for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila.  I attended solemn Masses and different times of prayers with the monks and the other retreatants and even though everything was in French, I could follow along with the help of my Bible and Kindle.   Something unique that I had never experienced before was an Easter Vigil Mass at 4 am on Sunday.  The monks started drumming at 3:30 to wake us up and they kept at it until 4 am when the candle blessing and procession began.  I was pleasantly surprised to see children from the surrounding villages around the bonfire and in the Mass.  I am impressed how the children will go to Mass without the prodding of their parents, especially at 4 am.  It probably helps their motivation that there isn't much entertainment in the villages so drums at 3:30 am signal that something new and exciting is happening.

Anyway, the vigil Mass was beautiful and I realized for the nth time during the retreat how much I will miss the simplicity and pace of a Rwandan life and the beauty of the Rwandan people.  There aren't a lot of things to make people busy so they are more available for others.  They are humble and devout.  Connections to others are still important.  Even if they don't have a lot of things (many of the kids showed up without shoes and with dirty clothes), they have each other and God and that makes them very rich. 

Blessings on the rest of your Easter season!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Ah, Mexican food...

When people ask me about life in Rwanda, I tell them that there are many great elements of life here.  
  • I usually get enough exercise  because I walk everywhere and the work days are short enough that I have time to go for a run or do a workout video.   
  • Except for bread, porridge, Quaker oats, pasta, and flour, nothing is processed.  Everything is fresh and made from scratch.  The bread is freshly baked.  I eat lettuce and spinach harvested from our garden and avocados pulled from the school's trees.  I drink herbal teas made from lemongrass and mint, which are also taken from the garden.  I definitely get my daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • The landscape is beautiful.  Green rolling hills, oftentimes terraced with fields.  Blue sky with white, puffy clouds.  Rainstorms that roll in and fill buckets of water in less than 10 minutes.  Tropical flowers, like hibiscus, that grow year-round.  Lake Kivu surrounded by hills.  Wow!  The natural scenery of Rwanda is hard to beat.
  • I live 5 minutes from a church that has two Masses a day and there is a chapel just next door to my house.   
  • The neighborly, community spirit is alive and well.  People encourage me to stop by for a visit anytime and they really mean it.  When I see people I know at Mass, in the city center, or in the street, we pretty much always great each other.  I am sure to get at least a verbal greeting but, more likely, a handshake or two-handed embrace with a three-touch head bump.  That last one is difficult to describe, but imagine the French cheek-kissing and replace it with touching the brows of the forehead three times while grasping the person's upper arms.  Some expats think it's awkward, but I like knowing that physical contact is expected.  When I greet someone in the States, I never know if a wave and "hello" suffices or if I should extend my hand or offer a hug.  I don't mind physical touch; I just don't want it to be awkward when it happens.
One thing that is missing, though, is food diversity.  As a native Californian, I love ethnic (even if it's Americanized) food: Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Indian, etc.  I miss Mexican food the most, which is why I keep trying to prepare dishes that will get close to the Mexican food I miss.  After some trial and error, I finally made a Mexican meal yesterday that was delicious!  If you want to try your hand making Mexican soft-shell tacos from scratch with Rwandan-only ingredients, here you go:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. oil
  • 2 c. warm water
  • 4 c. flour
  • Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Make a well and add oil mixed with water.  Add flour.
  • Mix and knead, then let sit for 5 minutes.  Make small balls, then roll them out with a rolling pin.
  • Put it in a really hot skillet for a couple minutes on each side.

2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 1/2 cups uncooked white rice
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup chunky salsa = 1 cup tomato sauce, 2 diced tomatoes, 1 tsp chili powder
Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir in onion, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Mix rice into skillet, stirring often. When rice begins to brown, stir in chicken broth and salsa. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes, until liquid has been absorbed.


2 avocados
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ripe tomato, chopped
1 lemon, juiced
salt and pepper to taste
Peel and mash avocados in a medium serving bowl. Stir in onion, garlic, tomato, lime juice, salt and pepper. Season with remaining lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Since I finally have cilantro plants in the garden, I added a few chopped leaves to the guac yesterday.  Chill for half an hour to blend flavors. 
Grow black beans in your garden since they can't be purchased in Rwanda.  After soaking them overnight, cook them and sliced onions in water for ~ 1 1/2 hours.  Serve without the juice.

Put everything together in the tortillas, along with shredded cheese, and voila, tacos that remind me of home!
An earlier attempt using corn-crepe tortillas and no guacamole.