15 Things I Have Learned During My First Weeks In Rwanda

1. If there is running water, take a shower immediately!

And text all the other cousins to let them know! Since coming to the village, we have gone without running water roughly 80% of the time (that might be a generous estimate). Oftentimes the water will only be on sporadically in the middle of the night. The water will come back on at 4am, and be back off before breakfast. Also, don’t expect to have water for the entirety of your shower. Wifi without running water is a norm here (though power cuts are somewhat frequent as well, no where near as frequent as water cuts). Rainwater bucket showers aren’t nearly as bad as they may sound. Since the rainwater basins run out of water frequently too, if there’s running water, also fill up every bucket/jug/jerrycan in the house. Note: this is because several months ago one of the water tanks at ASYV was struck by lightening, so we are running on public water. There is hope that we’ll have more reliable water in a few months.

2. Being called “muzungo” is not offensive.

“Muzungu” means “white man” or “foreigner.” Here, I often get called “muzungu” by pretty much anyone of any age. The young men who were rebuilding one of the family homes would greet me every afternoon by saying “Hi Muzungu!” to which I would reply “mwiriwe!” (good afternoon in Kinyarwanda). It is just like “gringa” was used in Peru. Now the kids here mostly call us “cousin” whether they know our name or not, but occasionally we’ll hear “muzungu” in the midst of their Kinyarwanda conversation, usually talking about the cousins or one of the visitors.

3. L’s and R’s are largely interchangeable in speech.

This can be extremely confusing. My first day here when I was learning the names of the girls in my family, I was convinced that one of the girls names was “Luce.” I even repeated it back to her and she said I was correct. After looking at the list of names later that night, I realized her name is “Ruth.” “Playing” and “praying” are pronounced exactly the same. It is hilarious to hear people try to pronounce the cousin Shelby’s name. She gets looked at with confusion when she says “Neet wa Shelby” and they often respond “Sherby?” which has lead to her nickname Sherby or Sherbs. K’s and C’s are also sometimes pronounced as “ch” so the capital city of Kigali (typically pronounced Kih-gah-lee) is referred to as “Chih-gah-lee” or “Chih-gah-ri.”

4. Sleeping under a mosquito net is kind of like a having a fancy canopy bed.

Due to the high rates of malaria here (a few cousins got malaria last year, and several kids get it every year here), we all are on anti-malarials for the year, and everyone at the village sleeps under a mosquito net. It feels like a canopy bed that I always wanted when I was younger and gives me my own space in the room. Also, with the pictures and decorations that Katherine (my roommate and fellow cousin) and I have hung up in our room, it definitely looks like we’re living in a dorm room again.

5. Kinyarwanda is hard.

…unless of course you’re Alan (who has mastered way more Kinyarwanda than the rest of us). While French and English are both official languages in Rwanda, they are typically taught in schools, whereas Kinyarwanda is most widely spoken as the native language of Rwanda. No matter how hard I try to pronounce Kinyarwanda words, there will always be laughter from Rwandans, particularly the girls in my family. They definitely appreciate the attempt, but I can never seem to pronounce the words right. The word for family and door sound almost exactly the same. The word for spider has like 8 syllables! Mw, ng, rw, cy (chai) and nry sounds are definitely letter combinations I am not used to but are pretty common in the Bantu language! I have learned many of the basic greetings and a handful of other phrases. My girls enjoy teaching it to me, and I love learning it!

6. Honesty is brought to a whole new level here.

“That girl is big,” “you have a pimple on your face,” or “why do you have so many freckles” are all meant with no malice whatsoever. Just honesty. We’ve been warned that after every break we should expect to hear “cousin, you have gotten big.”

7. I should never expect to look as “smart” and put together as Rwandans.

The Rwandan staff here have a way to look incredible and stylish despite the heat, lack of water, and red dust/dirt everywhere, while us westerners look like we’ve been hiking through the desert for a week even immediately after a shower. Their clothes stay impeccably clean. I had never been told I looked “smart” as often as when Mable (the wonderful grade coordinator) dressed the girl cousins in traditional dress for graduation. Also, smart means professionally/nicely dressed, not intelligent (though sometimes its nice to think I’m being complimented on my intelligence).


… also, Rwandans love their shoes! My two pairs of Chacos and handful of shoes for other uses (ie. hiking boots and shower shoes) are nothing in comparison the shoe collections of my Rwandan housemates! To say there are almost 100 shoes lining the shoeracks in the hallway belonging to our 6 Rwanda housemates is not an understatement (see photo below). They manage to wear heels gracefully through the rocky pathways, while I manage to trip almost daily while wearing my Chacos (which are actually meant for hiking).

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8. Three people on a moto? No problem!

Motos (motorcycles) are the preferred method of transportation (sometimes basically the only form of transportation) especially out here in Rubona (the local town/village)/Rwamagana(the district, slash slightly larger town), we sometimes get lucky and can have the ASYV drivers drive us, but otherwise the only option is walking (its like a two hour walk to the bus station) or a moto. Motos are both exhilarating and terrifying.

9. Sorry has a somewhat different meaning here.

When someone trips or knocks something over, someone will say “oh sorry!” even when they were completely uninvolved in the mishap. Katherine said she has not heard this, but at least for Shelby and me (who are apparently much more clumsy than Katherine) we hear “oh, sorry” multiple times a day.

10. Late is early.

Regardless of the strong emphasis on time management here, showing up five minutes late to a meeting, I will likely still be the first one there. Also, meetings will often last for hours with seemingly little purpose, and efficient doesn’t always seem to be a word in the vocabulary. Also, always bring your cell phone, because things often change or come up very last minute.

11. Apparently we love our water. And our salad.

All of the kids comment about how much the cousins (what the fellows are called here) love their water and how much we drink. Due to the heat and amount of walking, we always carry our water bottles around and stock up on drinking water when we are in the dinking hall (since they boil their water so we can drink it). Also, we go crazy in the dining hall when there is salad (usually a sort of cucumber/green bean mayo type mixture, or cabbage) or especially avocado.

12. Rwandan snacks – sambosas, ibyraha, and amandazi – are delicious!

15 cents (100 Rwandan francs) for veggies/meat in fried dough, potatoes/onions in fried dough, or just fried dough? Yes please! There is a little shop right outside the gates of the village called The Shalom Shop (ASYV is like 95% of their business and they carry things just for us… largely the cousins). When the back gate is not open and we are too lazy walk to the front gate, Betty who works at the shop will take our order and bring us our food right to the gate. Sometimes it feels a little like we’re in a very free jail, since we pass our money and get our snacks through the fence, but it is SO worth it!

…. But we also really miss American snacks. And we tend to spend a LOT of time talking about food. We talk about the food we miss from home, what we could possibly cook once we buy a hot plate, and food we will get in Kigali (the western supermarkets are expensive, but sometimes $4 for Pringles is necessary).

13. There are other people that like hugs as much as I do!

… maybe even more than I do! Here hugs are a natural way of greeting anyone, often regardless of your relationship with them. Note: hugs are almost always followed by a handshake (this definitely takes some getting used to!). Mama Bernadette taught my girls to give hugs when greeting her, Media their big sister, or me, which is so wonderful!

14. Rwanda is absolutely stunning!

It is definitely called “The Land of a Thousand Hills” for a reason. From the red dirt, lush green landscape, and mountainous backdrops, every new scene looks like a painting, like this view from the front of the school.


15. Above all, the people of Agahozo Shalom are absolutely incredible.

The kids here are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met.  The staff are no exception.  All of these kids come from vulnerable situations and hard backgrounds, and yet their confidence, talent, and determination make even the hardest day so much brighter. From listening to the girls in my family talk about the joy throughout the day at Family Time, reading application essays about the difference ASYV has made in their lives, or seeing the smiles on the kids faces as they walk around campus, these kids are amazing. I cannot wait to spend almost a year here, being inspired by the students each and every moment.




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3 responses to “15 Things I Have Learned During My First Weeks In Rwanda

  1. Dorothy

    Dana, thank you for sharing this blog. I feel I have a better understanding of the trials and joys you will see this year. No water would be extremely hard for this pampered Aunt.


  2. Jane Urban

    Dana, it’s wonderful to read about life in the village and the joys and challenges you are sharing in. Sounds like many hugs and love surround this beautiful place! Much love to you, Dana! Love, Aunt Jane


  3. Dana, sounds like a real learning experience, can’t wait to hear more in a couple weeks in Jerusalem! Keep doing great work!


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