Mzungu’s crossing through East Africa

One of the highlights of my stay here is a visit from a friend from the Netherlands I studied with. On the left a map of our itinerary and below a story about all the craziness we have been through crossing through Eastern Africa.

Bas entry into Africa was a rough one. Our first night in Uganda (were Bas arrived) we decided to explore Kampala’s nightlife. Soon after we arrived in our first bar Bas got pocket lifted and I decided to follow a suspicious looking guy who was quickly making its way out. Standing next to him at the toilet block I thought to myself ‘OK, now what?!…’ after some thought I came up with the line ‘Do you have something for me? He looked up surprised and said ‘what do you mean’ ‘I mean do you have something for me?’ looking him a bit more intruding in the eyes. ‘How much?’ and after I named my price (never seriously considering to pay him), next thing you know he draw a wallet from his back pocket. Happily surprised with this lucky draw I told him to follow me and I headed back to Bas to check if it was the right one. ‘No that’s not mine’ Bas responded disappointingly, leaving me in the strange situation of having someone else’s wallet and having this guy next to me who was visible getting annoyed. I handed back the wallet, and quickly after police guys alarmed by our Ugandan friend came in and starting beating down him and his friends who supposedly formed a gang that was picket pocketing that night. This marked Bas’ warm welcome to a continent avoided by most exactly for this reason. I felt bad, but figured things could only get better hereafter. And so it did. Early morning we set off to the beginning of the Nile river and did an amazing 6 hours of wild-water rafting.

Our next treat was visiting Queen Elisabeth Parc, a wildlife parc tucked away in Western Uganda. Dropping with public transport (after some breakdown and hick-ups along the way) at the parc’s gate, we meet Adolf. A friendly young lad who could explain as much about wildlife as I can about China’s educational system, but who was kind enough to drive us around the Parc and afterwards we camped in the middle of it. I have to say there is something profoundly exhilarating about getting back in touch with nature by sitting in the middle of a wildlife Parc with Impala’s and warthogs walking around us, grilling sausages on a stick over a self-made campfire. To add to our wildlife experience we decided to get a beer from a little shop at a 10 minutes walking distances. That was the longest 10 minutes walk I can remember.. With the doubtful help of the little light of my phone we just could see pairs of reflecting eyes staring at us as we walked by. Each time we would discuss weren’t those two eyes belonged to an impala, warthog, hippo or maybe a lion… In the end we took comfort in the thought that if a lion was behind these two eyes, I would probably have long eaten us. On our way we did bump into two hippos grazing at a two meter distance from us. While it took quite a lot of nerve getting there (with an elephant waiting for us on our way back) the beer tasted all the better once we arrived.

Leaving behind Uganda, we got back to my current home town, Kigali. After some days of work, we decided to do a road trip by bike over the weekend. We went to Lake Kivu, passing by tons of villages along the way. Cruising around as two whites on a bike we soon felt we had reached stardom status, with kids running towards the road smiling and screaming ‘Mzungu, mzungu!’. At the lake shores we set up camp at Paradise something, which truly lifted up its name with a nice little beach and lush garden. At night we decided to find out where the nearby beat was coming from and we ended up at a Congolese party were we learned some brilliant Ivorian coast dancing and historically Bas had his first marriage proposal.

Next on our things to do list was visiting Tanzania. This was somehow a nostalgic experience, it being fours ago that I first set foot on African soil in that very country, offering me some of the best three months in my life. We were soon reminded of the warm and welcoming nature of Tanzanians talking to whoever was standing close to us. However, this openness reached its boiling point when a guy in front of us in the bus handed me his phone and said ‘number’. A bit surprised by this frank request I entered my 10 digits and gave it back to him. After that he just sat backwards on his seat facing us and for the lack of English vocabulary just bended over and kept staring at us, making for a very uncomfortable hours of reading, and eventually the phrase ‘I read your book’. ‘No I am reading it’ for a change of tactic he started to dial friends and then hand over the phone to me ‘this is peter’. Also Peter on the other side of the line did not know any English and to my rescue the phone was soon out of credit.

Our first stop in Tanzania was the Serengeti, the world’s most famous wildlife parc. It truly felt like being in a national geographic documentary and it is hard

Elephants fighting

to describe how mesmerizing it feels just to observe the endless plains of Serengeti jam-packed with the most diverse collection of wildlife. We had our own open-roofed safari jeep and guide ‘Ken’. Ken who had been doing this job for ten years knew everything there was to know and soon became our safari friend. The first day we spotted herds of buffalo’s, a group of Giraffes, an Elephant family and a countless number of Impala’s and the like.  Early morning of our second day in Serengeti we encountered all the Parc’s predators: Lions, hyena’s, jackals, a cheetah and a leopard.

Maasaii

Our safari ended by Ken dropping us at a small Maasaii village inside of the Parc. Seeing the dire conditions they live in, learning about their rich culture, and observes the diversity of colours and jewellery they wear surely was a treasured experience.

After the Parc I returned to the town I did my master research more than four years ago. Walking the streets and meeting old friends like the ever positive Franklin and our warm and welcoming host Miriam, who kept in touch ever since, brought back good memories. The road continued East were Zanzibar awaited us as the cherry on top of our holiday cake.

As on all postcards Zanzibar is truly picture-perfect; it is just hard to miss the beauty of its long stretches of white sanded beach, the romance of traditional fishing boats queued up at the coast, the clear light blue sea, and the warm breeze going through the gently waving palm trees. To further indulge in Zanzibar’s richness Bas and I went snorkelling; swimming among the most beautiful of under-water wildlife. During our stay on the overwhelmingly Islamic island of Zanzibar, the Ramadan was closing its end and each late afternoon people would be on the outlook of the moon to appear, marking the end of their month long fast. The moon only showed up the last day of our stay, making us miss the late evening celebrations. Because that day was spontaneously declared a national holiday, we found out that our ferry back to the capital where I would fly back to Kigali was cancelled. In an effort to still catch my flight I rushed to the airport where I was just on time for a late departing small ‘flying doctors kind of’ airplane where I sat just behind the pilot and had the most astonishing view of the island.

Did-you-know-that:

  • We have spent a good 58 hours on busses.
  • The crazy guy staring at us in the bus had stored the number of ‘God’, I still feel bad I haven’t got that number from his phone…
  • Maasaii drink blood from cows. It is a sign of manhood to drink it. I have I am glad that my manhood wasn’t put to the test when visiting the Maasaii village.
  • Under its surface lake Kivu holds world’s biggest bubble of methane gas. No-one knows exactly when the methane would bubble up and the potential explosive consequences. As the Lonely Planet notes, there is nothing one can do if this happens during your visit and the final scent one may expect in her life is ‘a horrible earthly fart.’
  • I jumped together with the Maasaii, I didn’t reach half as high as they though…
  • Maasaii make their shoes (flipflops rather) out of old car tires
  • We drove around in nightly Kampala for an hour tracking down the car of al picketpocketer, tightly squeezed between two police men with Kalashnikov’s.
  • During the spice tour on Zanzibar Bas and I tried some kurkuma (used in curry) root and we consequently walked around with irremovable yellow on our teeth all day
  • During a chimpanzee track I mixed up the image of a chimpanzee with an orang oetan (nowhere to be found in Africa) and was thus looking up in the trees for orange the whole trip, no wonder we did not see any…
  • I got a shirt with ‘Mzungu’, people just start laughing when I walk the streets with it.

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Why taking your wedding pictures at a roundabout is as good as sitting outside

One of the definite rewards of being in a foreign country is that you get to see the world through different eyes. Things that surprise you push you to rethink your own standards of normality. Some of my daily surprises include the over the top visual effects in videoclips exploiting every effect the editing program has to offer, the shining shirts that people would wear on special occasions like going to church, the longer than usual jackets of suits, the umbrella’s when it’s not raining, everyone having their wedding picture taken at roundabouts… Let me just give you two more examples to illustrate my point here in more details.

How to design a restaurant seems to be more culturally defined as one might think. A restaurant here simply seems to mean a good collection of chairs (which they sometimes stuck upon each other to make a real ‘luxurious seat’), a number of white plastic tables, an old painting of a fake fruit basket staring at you from the wrong angle

Cant do without the fruitbasket..

, a menu that is more indicative of what they possible could have than presenting an actual list of available items. And lastly, a number of local staff outnumbering the number of customers resulting in the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of being watched.

As I write I am actually sitting in my favorite hangout place, it being that sweet exception confirming the rule. The

my favorite hangout

remarkably good atmosphere and the thought-through design just makes me appreciate all small coffee bar owners back home that took an effort to make their place stand out and add just that little flint of character. It might be the spirit of individualism that drives westerners to tirelessly seek that gap in the market and differentiate your shop from other, but somehow this is not shared by our African brother who would always default in copying what he sees his fellow entrepreneur doing. Self-centric individualism or not, it makes up for these sweet characteristic places which I have become to appreciate being without.

A second example is the rack holding the herbs in our kitchen. It might be a little thing but it just puzzles me is that the angle does not seem to bother the eye of the carpenter that made it for us, while it makes me shake my head every time I see it. Maybe it is our 17th century painters, our scientific past or our perfectly squared houses, maybe it is the traditional round huts here but somehow the love for mathematical precise lines is not shared by our African counterparts.  I guess it teaches me that worrying your head of having everything levelled and all lined up doesn’t really add that necessary ingredient in life, as people here seem to do comfortably without.

A lack of care to stand out as an entrepreneur and the lack of interest of leveling an herb rack is countered by a preoccupation for other things in life. It is interesting to see where the aesthetic eye of the Rwandan gravitates towards: the women’s hair. My wild guess would be that apart from food, 1 out of every 3 shops is a hair saloon. While apparently black hair is very stiff not leaving the bearer a lot of options, the different haircuts walking the streets is simply astonishing. Braided, spiky, curly, straightened, extensions, afro-style, coloured, frizzy, pony-tailed, knotted, wavy, dread-locked, weaved or a mixture of the above, the possibilities are endless…

In a closing note seeing things through another peoples’ eyes makes you relative your own judgement and perception. It even makes me question the things that strike me as normal like paying a couple of euros for just sitting outside in the sun with a drink, starting to smile whenever a camera is pointing your way, or keeping a rabbit as a pet and feeding instead of eating it, or people running in a park without  heading somewhere. Trying to explain these things to someone here is quite a challenge I tell you. Well, I guess that while I don’t seriously alter my own point of view or act differently, an understanding is growing on me of why taking your wedding pictures at a roundabout is as good as voluntarily sitting outside in the burning sun.

Did you know that:

  • my new friend..

    I got a motorbike! I was thinking about starting looking for one yesterday, then I saw a guy selling one on the internet, I gave him a call, went to see it and bought it right away. I am still processing the thought of buying my first vehicle in life. To be honest I don’t like the idea of owning anything, but riding it…is AWESOME

  • Being fat has a whole other meaning here, you are less quickly considered it and it just doesn’t carry that negative connotation.
  • Buffet lunches are popular in Rwanda. I came to understand why: you can eat as much as you want! It still sometimes shocks me how much some people pile up a plate, men and women alike. My colleagues now coined the phrase ‘eating like a mzungu (white)’ whenever I come over with a modestly filled plate.
  • Having your arms on the table is considered polite
  • When a husband is on a trip for more than 90 days without a good reason, leaving its household to themselves, he is fined and this even constitutes a legitimate legal case for the wife to ask for a divorce.
  • I don’t really see homeless people in the street of Kigali. It just strikes me that a third world country like Rwanda seem to be better capable to handle this problem than most of developed world.
  • After farmer cooperatives have completed our training at the World Food Programme they start performing as dance and singing to thank the trainers.
  • Getting an sms with ‘U eat?’ is pretty normal as it shows a sign of interest and care in the other’s well-being.
  • less organised... nice detail: the sign at the left reads 'furniture shop' who wants to buy there?!

    I went to Uganda’s capital Kampala for a weekend to have some fun with some of my colleagues. Kampala re-introduced me to Africa’s craziness and smelling the scent of burned charcoal and garbage when entering the city, even made me strangely feel a little home again.

  • Lake Victoria is Africa’s biggest lake
  • I had my last French lesson; I am surprised how well it went and even did all the interviews with traders for the market study (previous blog) in French. As of today I am starting Swahili lessons.

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Visiting refugees

refugee camp

It is 8 Am and I am leaving  behind the bustling streets of Kigali as we set off to visit one of the refugee camps. The refugees are World Food Programme’s ‘raison d’etre’ for being here and I am eager to visit one for the first time. The camps host refugees who fled their country after an upsurge in violence in Eastern Congo in 1996. Up to date, the conflict has costs the lives of over 5 million souls over a shameless scramble for resources and the number is only geared to go up. Visiting the camps makes me lightly touch upon the grim reality that is enfolding 200 km East of me.

My job is to perform a market assessment to see if instead of giving food WFP could give cash to refugees. Instead of transporting bags of food across the region, cash vouchers allow refugees to buy from local shops around. This gives them more freedom of choice whilst at the same time investing money in the local economy surrounding the camp. The reality of the day is that they re-sell part of the food they are receiving.

refugee camp market

As the bible already foretold ‘man cannot live by bread alone’. Walking around the market that refugees set up, I am surprised to find items like cosmetics, lotions and new clothing being sold. When I pause for a second and think about it, this only shows me how much alike we are. Regardless of the horror they have been through, refugees like any other person just want to look good in the hope of finding the right partner instead of merely counting the number of calories they intake.

Changing food for cash might just allow for this bit of more dignity and freedom of choice on the part of the refugees, but at the same time could potentially increase drinking, house violence, and price hikes in the local market surro

walking around the camp

unding the camps. The assessment needs to weigh the pro’s against the con’s and try to find smart ways to minimize the risks involved. In the weeks to come I hope to get a better understanding of the camp reality and see how this interacts with local markets surrounding the camps. Food or Cash I don’t know, but as I roll down my window of the car and the sun brightens my face I do know I like my job.

Did-you-know-that..

  • I had my first earthquake.. While the whole city was woken up by the earthquake around 5:30, I was still peacefully asleep… I am yet to find another person that also slept through this apparently well felt shock…
  • I rode a waterski, its like a motorbike on the water just with more bumps:)
  • ‘Dying like a nigerian’ means to fake it, referencing to the third’s largest film industry ‘Nollywood’ in Nigeria where they for a lack of having modern equipment ‘slowmotion’ an action scene by moving really slowly and overly faking being shot taking a good 10 seconds before actually dropping to the ground..
  • I went for a weekend trip with my colleagues to Burundi which was tons of fun

    amstel bokbier

  • They have Amstel ‘bokbier’ here, in Burundi it is a very popular drink. The only problem is that when you order a bottle you always get 2 as one is considered to little and they happily refill without asking, so think twice before you order ‘a’ bottle…
  • The older lady sitting across my desk already calls me her son…
  • plastic bags keeping the flies at bay

    In some restaurants they hang plastic bags with water at the ceiling to keep the flies away

  • I tried to get a permit to visit the last remaining gorilla’s on earth together with Bas when he comes over to visit me in August, but these are already completely  sold-out until November…

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The smell of development…

Two weeks from home and all is exactly as it should be (I found a house, started French classes, joined a gym and the job fits me like a glove) yet it feels like I miss something. The country feels a lot less African and I miss a bit of the excitement that that always stirs in me. A lot has to do with the country’s decent and organized appearance, which seems far removed from the reason of my very being here.

Innovatively drying maize

Innovatively drying maize

Let me take you back. Last week I made my first trip into the field, visiting farmer groups (cooperatives). I have to say I was quite impressed by the way they innovatively dry their maize by bundling the cobs together and hang it over wooden sticks. Seeing all the little plots each bringing forth its own crop, did not only make for a stunning view, but also made me glance at the country’s development. Every inch of nearly flat land is cultivated and some terraces are built on the many steep slopes that this country consists of. The same development I saw in the countryside I witness every day when I drive by people repairing the tarmac in the capital. Around me I see people crowding the streets purposely heading a specific direction and generally well-dressed.

Compared to other African countries, there seems to be less dust, less smiles, less chaos, less surprise, less Africa… While this feels like less of a place for all this reasons, I might be wrong. The Ugandans across the table talk passionately about their admiration for the state of development their neighbor is in and its strong leadership. It makes me think that the disappearance of the unorganized and worriless nature that runs through the veins of this continent might well be the trade-off for the economic development everybody is working towards. Maybe some of Africa’s underdevelopment also gives birth to its many charms.

Whether there is any such relation I am not sure about, there are many things that make Rwanda the country it is today. I do not know exactly what the scent of development smells like, whether is sweet or sour, spicy or without any particular taste.

That I don’t have a 100 and 1 stories to share after two weeks in a new country does strike me. Somehow my experience of this hilly country is surprisingly flat. All lights dim after 10 and it took us two hours driving around town to find some party during the weekend. Unlike the red soil of neighbouring Congo, that between the many hard rocks and other difficult soil holds diamonds, this country’s ground seems to be consistently fertile. Of course one does not have to dig deep to uncover underneath this top layer of soil, the many bones telling stories about the genocide only 17 years ago.

pictureperfect view of lake burera in northern province

Rwanda's still waters

They say still waters run deep. Rwanda seems to be one of these waters. While I am struck by the normality of its appearance and the tranquility of its surface slightly unsettles me, I am yet to discover the depth of it all.

Did you know that:

  • Your ‘first name’ is your family name here, as family always comes first. Second names always have a meaning, as the meaning is believed to have predictive power. If someone is named ‘success’ (mugisha) or money’ (Gaferanga) he or she is likely to run a business when he/she gets older. Some other funny names you’ll find here: Ansabire – ‘pray for me’ Mbarimmbarimombazi – ‘I am born in a neighbourhood where people don’t like me’ and my personal favorite: Murorunkwere – ‘Look at her and give me cows’
  • I just bought some fresh milk from a small shop across my street which comes in a plastic bag. Once I pinched a whole in it I had to drink it all in one go, I feel a bit sick of it now…
  • Besides the common cramped ‘minibuses’, Kigali is rich in its many moto’s bustling the streets of Kigali. This is usually the transport I take. 
  • People in this region are reluctant to answer in the negative as it is considered impolite. What usually happens when I ask a direct question, is that they respond with a question. For example ‘where is this or that place?’ will be answered by ‘do I know?’ There is this story of the former president of Congo, Mobutu, who was asked by a journalist why he always answers a question with a question; his famous response: ‘who told you this?’
  •  An old lady from the cooperative gave me her two best maize cobs as a present. The maize now hangs in  my office as a sweet reminder.
  • There is one good thing the Belgians left, it’s mayonnaise…

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Going Local

 

Rwandan farmer

 In 2050, 9 billions mouths need to be fed. Who’s going to feed them? More and more the African small scale farmer figures in the expert’s answer to this question. Much of Africa’s interior remains unchartered territory and most unutilized arable land sits on this continent. Imperative to the low yields across the continent seems to be that they can only get better. What Africa now needs is investment.

Up to date, Africa is still being seen as an exporter of raw materials, not an investment opportunity. While colonialism ended and freedom is gained the grand narrative remains somewhat the same; Africa is powering the rest of the world’s industrial demands. Interestingly, some telephone companies prove that the internal African market might well be worth an investment. Setting up an immense telephone network resulted in mobile phones reaching the most far-flung places like Congo’s jungle. The same trick Coca Cola, now celebrating its 129th anniversary, pulled some time ago.

The new wave of seeing Africa as a business opportunity is an interesting one. Last week Agri-ProFocus, my former employee, organized an ‘Going local’ event on how companies can source from African small scale farmers and produce for domestic markets. The event generated interest from a wide array of Dutch companies involved in Africa, including Heineken.

The question central to this event ‘how to buy food produced by small-scale farmers?’ is the same question I will be cracking my brains on the coming months in Rwanda. The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) where I will be working, set-up a local buying programme called ‘Purchase for Progress’ (P4P). As WFP is the largest buyer of maize in the country they are re-thinking their procurement strategy and try to find ways to buy locally from small farmers instead of buying from the big commercial traders importing maize. As the millions of small scale farmers are scattered across the country and do not yet meet WFP’s international quality standards, this will prove to be quite a challenge.

I will be working from the capital (Kigali), but hopefully also get the chance to go into the field to visit the farmers involved. Other than the job I will be doing, the rest of my life there is unknown. As for where I will be staying, who I will meet and how my weekends will look like… your guess is as good as mine. The unknown fills me with excitement while at the same time I realize that this might not be such a fun experience as the previous ones. The coming seven months will tell.

Through this blog I hope to keep you up to date on a bi-monthly basis. My stories will be a mix of analytical reflections on development issues (like this posting), my personal story of how it is to live abroad and of course lots of fun experiences and stories of Africa’s craziness. .. As tradition prescribes I’ll close each posting with ‘did-you-know-that’. One of the things I learned from Zambian friends is to inspire someone by sending a ‘verse of the day’. Unlike my faithful Zambian friends I will not post a verse every day but probably each new posting.

Lastly, always feel free to free to leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

Warmly,
Janno.

Did-you-know-that?

  • Rwanda is called the land of the thousand hills.. So yes, picture a hilly and green landscape. The country’s capital, Kigali, is situated on seven hills (joining the ranks of Rome and Jeruzalem)

    Rwandan landscape

  • When I applied for a Rwandan Visa, I could not only do it online but also received a unique number through which I could track my visa application, detailing the exact moments which a Rwandese government employee worked on it, what’s wrong here?!
  • ‘Hotel Rwanda’, located in the centre of town,  is still functioning as a hotel.
  • Rwanda is the most densely polulated country on the continent
  • Plastic bags are not allowed in the capital, to keep the environment clean grocessories are wrapped in brown bag paper.
  • The country with the highest percentage of women members of the parliament is Rwanda
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