Land of a thousand quirks


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Africa » Rwanda
November 15th 2009
Published: November 15th 2009
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Reviewing my photos towards the end of five weeks in Rwanda/Goma/Bujumbura, I realised that I had accumulated quite a number of entertaining shop signs and the like. Rather than put them into a word-less blog (after all, isn’t my erstwhile profession paid by the word?), I thought I’d accompany them with a précis of some of the delightful quirks I’ve encountered in day-to-day life in this part of the world. (For those of an eagle-eyed persuasion, I had better confess upfront that most of the photographs came from Bujumbura, but most of the quirks are based on my experiences in Rwanda.)

Food and drink are always going to attract local differences, though I felt that Rwanda went in for more than most.

The staple in this part of the world is “ugali and sauce”. Ugali can be made with either maize flour - when it resembles a firmer and gluier version of southern African “pap” - or plantain, when it appears looking like a somewhat unappetising grey lump, a little like uncooked bread dough, and of a similar consistency. The “sauce” takes a variety of forms, preferably with a good strong flavour. Having been given soap and water to
my kind of shop!my kind of shop!my kind of shop!

Not sure that this is great for the shop's business, though.
wash your hands beforehand, you pull off a lump of ugali (being careful to eat only with your right hand), dip it in the sauce and then shovel it into the food processing unit. It is very filling and, in my limited experience (it was strange how rarely this dish actually did appear), notwithstanding my uncomplimentary description, very good.

However, omelettes are practically a national dish. I’m not sure I’ve seen a menu without them, and they are a standard feature of “compris” breakfasts. They tend to be left unwrinkled and unfolded, a little thicker than the Western version, and they come in a variety of flavours including tomato, onion, Spanish and “special”. Not being a vast egg-eater in the normal course of events, I must have consumed a decade’s worth in the one week alone!

If you would like a “cold” drink and request a Fanta, Coke or beer, you are invariably asked if you would like it “froid” or “chaud”? The latter is presumably intended to mean room temperature - the prospect of a “hot” Coke is none too appealing - but you are always asked if you haven’t already specified. You won’t be surprised to learn that one of the first Kinyarwanda expressions that I learnt was “nshaka inzoga ikonje” (I’d like a cold beer). The other quirk is that bottled drinks are invariably presented to you with the cap still on, then opened in front of you, a habit I particularly appreciate. No need to worry if the drink’s been spiked or watered down.

Hot drinks are usually supplied in a thermos or teapot, so you get several cups’ or mugs’ worth for your buck. My hotel in Huye, however, used the oversized vacuum flask/mugs that you see for sale in Starbucks, so they rapidly got used to providing me with seconds.

Coffee is invariably supplied with sugar and powdered milk, each in a little pot as if you have been rationed. I have only seen real milk provided once or twice. Even then, it was limited to a small jug’s worth, and seemed to be long-life and quite thin.

“African tea” is made with real milk, and emerges from the flask a very pale tan-colour. It is a variant of the usual with ginger added, which makes for a delicious drink and, in my case, a dessert-substitute.

Milk itself
minibus shows its coloursminibus shows its coloursminibus shows its colours

Kigali bus mess ("station" sounds too organised)
is something that people in the country go out to drink. I’d first come across this in Gikongoro when I was so thirsty after my 3-4 km walk back up the hill from the Genocide Memorial that I simply let my nose lead me to the nearest source of “bikonje” (cold-cold drinks). I noticed people come into this wee shop to be supplied with a pint or half-pint sized mug of milk which they’d either sit at the one table to consume or hover, standing, in the doorway. I’d thought it a little curious, if undeniably healthy. It wasn’t until I was staying at Cyangugu a few days later that I discovered this form of milk for myself. My delightful friend Dodos wanted to stop in for a glass as we were walking past a small sells-almost-everything place typical of small towns and villages in this part of the world. I thought I’d better at least try a sip of hers. Curiously, this drink bears closest resemblance to Mongolia’s airag, fermented mare’s milk. It’s thicker, being made from cow’s milk, but is otherwise very similar, like drinking home-made plain yoghurt, with a slight fizz from the fermentation. Very nutritious and sustaining, it rapidly became our “usual” afternoon break while I was staying there. Dodos worked at my hotel so, one busy Saturday afternoon when I wanted to go out for milk, I asked the manager if I could borrow her, mid-shift, for twenty minutes “to do some translating for me when I go shopping”. This was an infinitesimal white lie cooked up by us in advance, and we scampered off down the steps feeling like naughty schoolkids playing truant, although all we were doing was going off for a glass of milk!

Supermarket produce is remarkably international in its provenance. Coffee, tea, water and the two kinds of local beer, Primus and Mutzig, are indigenous, but almost everything else seems to be imported, and from a surprising variety of places. Kenya and Uganda are, not surprisingly, the default options, but one variety of glucose biscuit comes from the Punjab, a make of raspberry jam from Belgium, and a Ketchup-substitute from Dubai. And those were only the ones I chanced to examine. I cannot confess to having conducted an exhaustive survey of this subject.

Books are ferociously expensive. For once I found myself short on reading matter. I resorted to re-reading the last chunky novel I’d brought with me from Namibia but, in danger of reading it yet again, I forked out the best part of US$25 for a paperback copy of Dian Fossey’s book on the Rwandan gorillas. Later, I spent nearly the same on an autobiography of a Genocide survivor. Conscious of how absolutely prohibitive this must make English language books for locals, I was delighted when the receptionist at my Kigali hotel said that she read English novels and would happily take over my old ones.

In a superb piece of environmental awareness, plastic bags have been banned, to the extent that any visible will be taken off passengers arriving at Kigali airport. Heavy-duty paper bags take over in supermarkets, and bread comes wrapped in greaseproof paper. Further, the last Saturday of every month is Umugada, when everyone has to take part in some form of public service, such as litter-clearing. This means that Rwanda, while not completely free of litter, is certainly an impressively clean country.

Fellow travellers were in happily (for me) short supply. In fact, prompted by a question by email from an Australian friend, I worked out that it had been two weeks since I’d last got chatting to another muzungu. I frequently went a day or two without seeing any, and, when I did, those I saw were almost certainly working here, being particularly common in cosmopolitan Kigali and the university town of Huye (formerly, Butare). Of course, gorilla-tracking was the exception, but since then muzungus have been few and far between.

This means that I have mostly been travelling in places where I have been an oddity, and this did not go unnoticed or unpunished. “Muzungu! Muzungu!” is the near-ubiquitous way of attracting my attention (“Muzu!” from the smallest folks), though I have yet to work out the correct response to this: “Well spotted!” or “So, is that what I am?” sound just a little sarcastic. I’ve tended to reply with a wave or thumbs-up sign. Mostly, it seems to me, the motive is simple curiosity. I know of Westerners who find the appellation a form of racism, discrimination, but I accept that I am in places that don’t get a lot of tourists, and I’m happy to prove that the odd-looking creature can wave back, and even, very occasionally, address them in their own language (cue,
keep it simple...keep it simple...keep it simple...

Bujumbura shop
inevitable gales of laughter). From the younger generation, particularly young trendy lads or young men wanting to sell me something, “Sister! Sister!” is the preferred call. Occasionally, I am simply hailed by the more ominous-sounding, but actually the more standard, way of attracting attention: “Tssss, tssss.”

Rwandans are relatively formal in their contact with one another in public. Handshakes are the standard greeting, with a softer meeting than in the West, more of a slide from the palms to the end of the fingers than a firm grip’n’shake. Sometimes, if the two of you are very friendly, the hands come together from a distance, making a clap when they meet. Handshakes - or at least touching palms - are also used in conversation to reinforce a point, emphasise a joke or compliment. Embraces, which are not common except in close friendship or family situations, involve hands on the other’s shoulders, and then a cheek-meet on first the right, then the left, then the right again. Usually there is no cheek-kissing, except, possibly, on the third pass of the embrace. I was welcomed in this way by a friend’s aunt, when I was invited to dinner at her house, and I was touched to be greeted like this by the maid at my Kigali hotel on my third visit. Public displays of affection are limited to same-sex friendships. I don’t think I even saw a mixed-sex couple holding hands.

Women’s clothing, particularly in the country, remains fairly traditional, reliant on layers of cloth forming skirts, baby carriers, shawls, and the like. Even in cosmopolitan Kigali, it is relatively rare to see a woman wearing trousers or jeans. Formal dress often involves colourfully patterned nearly full-length dresses, with matching pieces of cloth wrapped around the head. Occasionally, I have seen the same quasi-sari outfit here that I saw in greater profusion in Burundi.

Rwandans are a very industrious people. Even at 6 am, there is a vast profusion of people on the move, going somewhere, carrying something. There is very little of the sitting-around-and-watching-the-world-go-by that you find in hotter African countries. There’s a lot to be said for living in the mild climate of well over 1,000m in the Tropics. I was also very impressed at the number of people I met who had firm intentions of going on to further study, regardless of where they currently were in
"meat is meat, and a man must eat""meat is meat, and a man must eat""meat is meat, and a man must eat"

This one's dedicated to my Namibian friends...
the education/career world. They included a waitress wanting to improve her languages, a nurse looking for advancement, a receptionist wanting to become a librarian, a number of existing undergraduates talking about post-degree options, and a post-grad wanting to investigate Masters courses abroad.

Buses leave on time here, to a quite staggering and unexpected extent. When I first saw a bus timetable painted up on a wall here, I was amused, expecting it to have as much bearing on reality as in India. But no. You buy a ticket for a particular bus, sometimes with a particular seat allocated to you, and the bus leaves when it says it will. It’s a different matter south of the border. My return bus from Bujumbura was already fifteen minutes late leaving when my Rwandan neighbour started tapping his watch anxiously like a stressed commuter late for a meeting. Woe betide his blood pressure when it took another twenty minutes before we set off…

There is a prevalence of expensive cars, if not, at least, the embarrassingly brand new ones in Goma. Land Cruisers and Hiluxes are particularly common: Toyota continues to rule in Africa. There seem to be very few beaten up or old cars here. Either you have a decent vehicle - particularly if you work for one of the aid agencies or other international organisations - or you don’t drive. Petrol is heinously expensive - about US$1.50/litre - and I assume that cars must also be very expensive with everything being imported.

Moto-taxis are a fabulous form of transport which I would love to see adopted in the UK. In Rwanda, they are licensed. The drivers wear green slip-on vests over their clothing, and have green helmets, often with their number printed on in yellow. Almost invariably, they have a spare helmet for the passenger. To tout for custom, they’ll often toot their horns as they pass you, turning back to see if they have a taker. The traffic here is manageable and well-enough behaved for this to be a good - and economic - way of getting around, although they can be a little more exciting on unpaved or potholed roads, even more so if you’re wearing a backpack and concentrating on not falling off backwards (I eventually managed to move my fingers out of their vice-like grip when I reached my destination…). I was more cautious
another minibus shows its coloursanother minibus shows its coloursanother minibus shows its colours

...this one near Bujumbura
of them in Bujumbura where they didn’t seem to be as well-policed, and, in any event, Bujumbura traffic is more chaotic, not least because they don’t seem to go in for “give way” signs. (I found crossing the road as a pedestrian by far and away the most dangerous and terrifying aspect of my sojourn there!)

Street-names are just about non-existent. (I wouldn’t have even qualified this, but I found one in Cyangugu, on a not-very-promising dirt track, “Ave de Résidence”.) And this is reflected in locals’ knowledge. You may be successful in asking the way to a particular landmark, but ask what street you’re on, and you will be met with a blank stare. My first morning, I was looking for Place de l’Indépendance, a kind of Trafalgar Square in Kigali terms, which should have been only a few hundred metres from my hotel, but the group of people I consulted put their heads together for ten minutes to no avail. When I refined my request as being to the head office of ORTPN, Rwanda’s tourist association, lights went on, and I was told to get a moto. When they realised I’d only been in the city a few hours and had no francs, I was immediately offered a lift; my Samaritan would not accept even a dollar for his kindness.

Road-blocks were still a recent and inconvenient enough phenomenon to get coverage in the June 2009 “East Africa” Lonely Planet, but they seem to be less common now. Occasionally, there are one or two cops at the side of the road, keeping an eye on traffic, but I have only once been in a vehicle here that has been stopped. On that occasion, the cop chatted importantly to the driver for a few minutes, then mooched slowly round the bus, as if expecting illicit goods to be taped onto the side or the back, before, looking disappointed, he let us go on our way. Burundi is another story, but, even there, I didn’t encounter any cops actually stopping traffic on the road from the border into Bujumbura; the only time I was ever stopped was south of the city which I have written about in an earlier blog.

There is an extraordinary profusion of paint adverts in this country, names emblazoned on the sides of buildings, Sadolin’s “Colour Your World” being one of the most common. I swear there must be half a dozen paint adverts in the fifty yards from my Kigali hotel to the main road alone. Walking up to the Bourbon Coffee Shop my first morning, it seemed as if the city comprised only paint shops and car parts places… and, on that subject, I was delighted to find a car parts place called “New Hope Spare Parts”.

In the countryside, there is a delightful profusion of hedges around properties, even the most simple houses. They seem to be a fence/hedge hybrid: growing, but vertically and horizontally kept in check by wooden fencing.

Every so often, you’ll see what looks like a bundle of sticks perched improbably far up a tree. I hadn’t thought much of it until I went to the National Museum of Rwanda in Huye and discovered that these are traditionally-designed beehives, looking like wooden funnels, but, not being an apiarist, I can’t confess to having found out much about how they work.

Television news is dominated by France24.com which can be a little daunting first thing in the morning. In Rwanda and Burundi, almost everyone speaking French is doing so as a second language, so
ouch!ouch!ouch!

This one's dedicated to all those who have had to live in the same house as people learning the violin...
we all muddle along, talking relatively slowly and not worrying too much about genders and tenses, but the news service seems to have deliberately recruited the fastest-talking Parisians: always a challenge, even in my “A” level days.

For evening entertainment, easily the most fun I’ve had in the last month has been watching a match in the English Premiership in a bar with a group of locals, delightfully good-hearted camaraderie between opposing teams’ supporters. I am indebted to the number of my male friends who have contributed to my subliminal football education. Without doubt, it is as vital in making conversation with African men - sadly, by far the majority of those I do get talking to here are men, whether because they are at the bar, running shops or are unencumbered by children and baggage on bus-trips - as my digital camera has been for making friends with children world-over. Apart from anything else, I feel it helps distract attention from the fact that I am a muzungu woman travelling on my own. I’ve been dilatory about dusting off “my husband” on this trip: the couple of times I have used it, it felt incredibly fake, not helped by the fact these were in situations where I was too likely to be found out - I’d opted for the “my husband is back in the hotel room; he’s not feeling well” version. As it is, I’ve had a number of encounters with men that ended up getting just a little tedious, and I’ve lost count of the number of email addresses and phone numbers I’ve been offered and/or given (from fellow guests, passers-by, taxi-/minibus-drivers, museum managers, co-visitors to the museum, waiters… even the guy in the laundrette… to name but a few), and the number of times I’ve been asked to give mine: I’ve started denying I have a Rwandan cell number and, as for email, thank goodness for Hotmail’s “JUNK” function if any of them do write!

Communications here have been remarkably good. I love travelling on my own, but I think it might get lonely if I didn’t have a mobile and/or access to the internet for at least occasional contact with people who know me. (Five weeks after leaving a friend’s home in Johannesburg, it’s a little strange to think that I have not seen a single person who knows me in that time…)
hmmm....hmmm....hmmm....

In the basement of my Cyangugu hotel... apparently...
Irritatingly, Rwandan MTC doesn’t seem to like dealing with text messages from outside the country, so that form of communication has been quiet, but at least the quality of the voice line has been good for the most part and I have been lucky to have had access to the internet within walking distance of every place I’ve stayed in Rwanda/Burundi except one. The quality of the connection hasn’t been superb, but it’s been at least a little better than dial-up speed and, power-cuts to one side, whether human- or weather-induced, relatively consistent. Wifi I’ve only encountered in Kigali, although I haven’t gone looking for it, and it has frequently been less reliable than internet cafés, although at least my laptop then protects me from the effect of power failures. (I don’t like advertising the fact I have a laptop when there are perfectly useable PCs to hand.) Mind you, I encountered non-QWERTY keyboards a surprising number of times, which got more than a little frustrating and even started affecting my ability to touch-type accurately on my own laptop. The letters that move - Z, A, Q, W and M - all consistently move to the same places at least, but each keyboard seems to vary in the location and operability of its punctuation. One memorable day, I had to write my emails without the use of an exclamation mark, and to substitute an equals sign for a hyphen. Talk about cramping my style!

English translation causes amusement the world over, and many of you will have seen some of the classic examples that circulate on the email from time to time. However, there are a few Rwandan examples to share with you:

“Smocking is forbidden throughout the hotel” (I’ll try to resist the urge…)
“The management and staff wish you to spend a happy moment in Hotel des Chutes” (only one?)
“Thank you for your lovely participation” (at the end of a list of the hotel’s regulations)

Then there are these entertaining dishes from the menu of my guesthouse in Musanze, the Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima, whose bizarre phrasing does not appear to be translation-related:

- the house special, the “Happy of Fatima Musanze”
- a salad, “Crudeness creased”

although it’s easy to see how “lamb” becomes “lump” and at least they were consistent in this spelling throughout.

And, of course, there are some delightful quirks in spoken English. My self-appointed “Rwandan sister” Dodos comes out with the best: if you go back to your room for a little downtime, “You are going to take a pause?”; in the morning, “Did you sleep nice?”; and, on scanning my diary, “You write equal to the doctor”.

All in all, it’s a truly delightful country. Even after what feels like a five-dimensional experience here (emotion being the fifth dimension, I’ve decided), truly overwhelming at times, I will be back.



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I loved the idea of a female photocopier...I loved the idea of a female photocopier...
I loved the idea of a female photocopier...

...but then discovered that, actually, this IS the French for photocopier


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