Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Land of a Thousand Hills

Sunday night I safely arrived in Kigali after 22 exhausting hours of travel.  Since Rwanda is practically on the equator, the sun sets around 6pm so it was completely dark when I landed at 7, even though it felt like 1pm due to the time change.  After passing through customs with two of the other program participants, we met up with Ben who is our On the Ground Coordinator (OTGC) and drove to our homestays that we will be at for the next 5 weeks.  The entire group of 19 participants are all staying with host families on the campus of the Integrated Polytechnic Regional Center (IPRC) which is a secondary and technical training school that students from all over the country attend.  It's comparable to a really small college campus and has awesome facilities, partly due to equipment donations from Korea.

When I met up with my host dad, Avit, Ben asked him if his wife had their baby yet and Avit said early that morning they did!  I was pretty amazed that even though they just had a baby less than 24 hours ago, they were still opening their home up to 3 college girls for the next 5 weeks.  I didn't really know what to expect for my homestay, but their house is much nicer than I anticipated and could be considered a nice rancher in the States.  I'm sharing a room with 2 other girls in the program and our room is extremely nice, larger than I expected, and we even have an indoor bathroom!

All of us sleep under mosquito nets since they are terrible at night, but the first night I was so worried about suffocating in my net since I sleep on the top bunk and my net was too small so it was right against my face.  Thankfully I got a new net after the first 2 nights so it has been a little better but still challenging since the net is off-centered overhead and touches my skin.  For the first week, I kept waking up with dozens and dozens of mosquito bites on my arms and legs since the mosquitoes can bite through the net if it's in contact with your skin. At one point, my entire left arm was swollen from mosquito bites and looked like I was diseased.  While desperately fighting the urge to itch them, I counted the bites and had 50 bites just on my left forearm, not to mention the countless ones on my legs despite wearing 20% deet bug spray.  Since then, I've resorted to wearing long pants and long sleeves at night which is extremely hot in Africa without any breeze, but it's been a successful solution to the buffet that the mosquitoes have been making of my skin.

Monday morning everyone had to meet for class at 8am, despite suffering from some serious jet lag.  Right away, we jumped into 4 hours of Kinyarwandan language lessons with only a 10 minute break.  After about 3 hours, my brain was pretty well saturated and trying to focus on learning new vocabulary during the last hour was a challenge shared by the entire group.  Kinyarwandan is the native language spoken in Rwanda and while some words are taken from French, it was a completely foreign language with difficult pronunciations.  Monday-Thursday we had Kinyarwandan lessons from 8am-noon and then on Friday we started our French lessons which we will have for the next 3 weeks.  English became the national language in 2010 and while some people like my host parents speak it, French and Kinyarwandan are still dominant in the country.  In the afternoons, the group has lectures taught by a professor from Texas A&M University and labs to help us prepare for working in the hospitals.

Monday was just a basic introduction to the program, but starting on Tuesday we dove right into the work.  Before working in the hospitals, we need to have a basic understanding of electrical engineering principles so there are about 12 labs we will be completing.  All of the labs are completed with our assigned partners for the trip who we will be working with during the second month when we disperse to our separate hospital assignments.  My partner is Casey, a bioengineering student who attends the University of Pittsburgh and is one of my roommates during the first month.  Tuesday we constructed an extension cord and also learned how to solder components into a soldering board.  As an electrician's daughter I feel that I should have known better, but my partner and I committed a rookie mistake and ended up stripping our wires too much so that when we wired it to the plug, some were touching and created a short so we had to disassemble and re-wire the entire extension cord.  At least a lot of learning happened!

Wednesday and Thursday everyone was paired up with some of the Rwandan biomedical engineering technology (BMET) students at IPRC and we worked together to make an ECG simulator.  I was paired up with Jhon who just graduated from the program and Carpaphore who just finished his second of 3 years for the program.  Trying to communicate was sometimes difficult, but their English was pretty good which was a huge relief to me since I had retained pretty much only my name, basic greetings, and numbers from my 8 hours of Kinyarwandan lessons.  Building the ECG simulator with them was an awesome experience because we got to share parts of each others cultures and they also taught me some about circuits.  Once completed, we even got to test out device on a machine and Jhon was able to keep the device which can be a valuable tool when troubleshooting equipment in the field.

The first week was pretty exhausting between recovering from finals week and jet lag, having class 8-5 everyday and having homework assignments at night, but the group still found time to hang out and socialize with some of the students at IPRC.  Thursday afternoon we got to play basketball with some of them and despite our terrible skills compared to theirs, they were always eager for another game.  We played 3v3, half court, and to 3 baskets.  Once one team scored 3 baskets, regardless of 2 or 3 point sots, the losing team rotated out with a new team.  Soccer (futbol) is huge here and there are always teams practicing every afternoon on the campus's very nice field.  Thursday morning we also got to experience some of Kicukiro (chi-choo-chiroo) by visiting the market across from the school to practice some of our Kinyarwandan skills.  We were only there for about 45 minutes, but it definitely was an experience walking past shops with entire animal carcasses hanging in the doorway as butchers tried to sell us meat that was sitting out in the heat with bugs everywhere, piles of produce next to piles of rotting produce, and women sewing clothes or grinding up flour from casava roots.

Tuesday night, Avit and his wife, Agnes, had to take their baby to the hospital for a check-up and ended up staying overnight since the baby had jaundice which is fairly common in infants here.  There the baby received phototherapy via blue light to neutralize the yellowing of the skin and eyes.  Thankfully, the baby is doing well and returned home late Thursday night/early Friday morning and is extremely cute!

Saturday our group took a tour of the Millennium Village to learn more about Rwandan culture and history which definitely proved to be a vivid experience which no one will be forgetting anytime soon.   The day was packed full with experiences, so I'll be creating a separate post just for that day, hopefully within the next day or two depending on the internet situation.

Overall, the country is absolutely gorgeous.  It's know as 'The Land of a Thousand Hills' and is just breathtaking scenery wherever you go.  One interesting fact is that no plastic bags are allowed into the country, which definitely helps to limit the garbage situation.  Even compared to the States, Kigali is extremely clean and it's hard to find trash anywhere on the streets.  The country takes great pride in Kigali and presents it as their showcase to other countries.  A few times our group has been walking around the city and a young child will come and ask us for 100 or 200 francs which is the equivalent of about 25 cents USD.  If an older person, maybe 30 or older, or a soldier sees the child asking us, they approach the child and the child takes off running, I guess in fear of getting in trouble.  I haven't been to the rural areas yet, but at least in Kigali, practically everyone takes great pride in how their country is presented to foreigners.  Several of the host families have told us that we need to gain weight while we are here so that when we go back to the States, people will know that we ate well in Rwanda.  The group isn't really a fan of that idea, but the hospitality here is amazing and the sense of community is heart-warming.


  1. Laura,

    Thanks for sharing about life in Rwanda. It sounds amazing! Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers.


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