Sunday, March 27, 2011

March Madness

While most of America is consumed with "March Madness" i.e. the NCAA tournament of basketball games, I've had a little madness of my own in Rwanda. The last two weeks have been hectic at work as I've worked on several articles, conducted interviews for future articles and started designing new templates for the newsletters and fact sheets for Access. I did manage to squeeze in some fun events though, so here are some highlights from the last two weeks:

The Award Goes To:
My co-worker Malick invited me to the Health Journalism Awards  held at the Kigali Serena Hotel  on the 18th of March. The Ceremony was organized by the Ministry of Health in conjunction with UNICEF and other NGOs, to recognize journalists for their excellence in health reporting. It is also aimed at motivating aspiring journalists to increase the quality of health coverage in Rwanda. In an environment where disease can spread quickly among the poor, it is important to have media coverage on health issues that will educate the public and lead to behavioral change.

So there I was, at the Serena with a packed ball room of journalists, government officials and entertainers. In all over seven awards were given out to honor the best in print, broadcast and radio. The winners were given flat screen TVs, modems and radios in addition to their certificates of honor. The entertainment for the evening was a local band that played traditional Rwandan music as well as reggae and pop songs. There was also a play that told the story of AIDS on a group of friends. The play was entirely in Kinyarwanda, and while I couldn't understand any of the words, I did feel the emotional impact of the story as the actors dealt with the death of a loved one with anguish and despair.  It was also suggested by the host that the awards ceremony should encompass visual storytelling in the future because in the rural communities, where people don't have access to TVs, the population is educated about health issues through plays.

After the awards ceremony, the food was served and it was delicious! If you are ever in Rwanda, fyi, the Serena hotel is a five star hotel with amazing food and amenities. Since it is only two blocks from my apt, I walked home that night and couldn't stop smiling. I left the awards ceremony very proud to be a part of a community that is making a difference by reporting on health issues.

A World in Crisis:  

 There are two very significant days at the end of March,  World Water Day (March 22nd) and World TB Day (March 24th) that were instituted to raise awareness about these global epidemics. To be perfectly honest, before I moved to Rwanda, I didn't know that these days existed. Not that things are perfect in NY, but we don't live in a state of panic that we die from unsafe water or tuberculosis. Yet much of the developing world lives in fear, in fact over one billion people on the planet do not have access to safe water and countless lives are lost each year from tuberculosis. I had the opportunity to work on an article for Access for World Water Day, in support of their water projects past, present and future. Read it here: Increasing Access to Safe Water in Rwanda

A Gusaba or Negotiation: 

Rwanda is rich with many traditions and rites of passage, none so rich as the rite of marriage. I had the opportunity yesterday to not only witness the gusaba or proposal ceremony of two people in love, but I was a part of the grooms entourage! My co-worker Raissa invited me to be a gift bearer in the gusaba ceremony between her friend and his girlfriend. In order for two people to get married, they must participate in gusaba ceremony between their respective families and the community. The ceremony is conducted at the prospective bride's house and is hosted by her uncles who must determine through a series of questions and tests, if the prospective groom is worthy of her hand in marriage.

The day started with the civil ceremony, where the man and woman are officially married by a judge. The judge repeatedly warned the couple about the seriousness of marriage and that nothing should separate the two. While she spoke in Kinyarwanda, Raissa translated for me, things like "If you have a lot of kids, don't just remember the oldest son's names but try to remember the names of the others" and "Men are helpless and can't do anything on their own, try to help each other as much as possible".

After the civil ceremony, the couple and the wedding party (including me) changed into traditional ceremonial clothing. The men wore leopard print garments and carried canes made out of cowhide, the women wore bright brown and gold saris and carried handwoven baskets with presents for the respective families. There were two huge tents set up in the backyard of the bride's house, one tent held the bride's family and entourage and the other tent was for the groom's family and entourage. As a part of the groom's entourage, I sat on his side of the tent, while his uncle began negotiations on his behalf. The bride's uncle began by welcoming everyone to the house, servers brought out drinks for everyone and then the negotiations commenced.

With microphones in hand, speaking to the over 200 people gathered in the bride's backyard, the bride's uncle and the groom's uncle gave reasons why the groom was or wasn't worthy of the bride. There were stories told of a time when the bride wanted to get into a school and the groom's family prohibited it through their connections with the headmaster. Another scenario included a close uncle of the bride who was delayed in Kenya and needed to be present before a decision could be made. The groom's uncle then asked one of the pastor's in attendance to pray that the uncle's plane would land in Rwanda that very minute and allow negotiations to continue. Scenario after scenario was presented and finally, an agreement was reached, the bride's family consented to the marriage! The cows were then delivered as a part of the dowry for the bride's hand in marriage. There were no real cows presented but a herder did a cattle call as fictional cows mooed through the loudspeaker. The bride who was in the house while all of this was going on, then came outside to meet her groom. She came out in a beautiful gold sari with diamonds and was led to the tent first to meet the groom's family and then to greet her own. At this point, the other gift bearers and I stood up and carried the gifts to the bride's family as a reward for their daughter's hand. 

I walked behind the bride and groom and presented the bride's mother with a gift. After that,  I took my place with the bridal party in a special tent. I watched as the groom slipped the engagement ring on the bride's finger and spoke to the guests. After that we walked inside the house, where we were given urns filled with milk as a reward for our service. As the night wrapped up, we went to another location with the groom's family where we ate and the family began to make wedding preparations. In Rwanda, it is customary for the groom's family to plan the wedding. The official wedding ceremony will take place in May. The entire ceremony was over four hours and it was truly a beautiful day!

Now if anyone is confused by anything I've just said, let me clarify, the couple were indeed married in a civil ceremony and then the groom proposed to the bride after her family approved. The "real"wedding will take place in May. Since I was in the ceremony, I didn't get to take a lot of pictures, here are a couple of pics that I managed to sneak in....

Me in my sari

The tents 
The groomsmen meeting the parents

The bride and groom

The gift bearers

Sunday, March 13, 2011


As an addendum to my earlier post on "Giving What We Can", I would be remiss if I didn't mention the earthquake that hit Japan this past Friday. My thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this disaster. I am reprinting an article posted on regarding the relief efforts:
" A massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan Friday morning, killing thousands of people and devastating a nation, but relief organizations are stepping up to provide immediate assistance to victims. 
Here are some ways you can get involved and help people: 

• Convoy of Hope's Disaster Response team is in contact with partners in Japan and identifying areas in the greatest need of assistance. You can donate online at or text TSUNAMI to 50555 to donate $10 toward the relief efforts. 

• AmeriCares is asking for donations so they can provide medicine and medical supplies to victims of the disaster. 

• Global Giving has set up a relief fund where you can make a donation, which will be distributed to relief and emergency services in the affected region. 

• Direct Relief International is reaching out to medical teams and emergency responders to offer assistance. 

• Save the Children is mobilizing a response to the disaster in Japan with a focus on helping the youngest victims. 

• International Medical Corps is sending medical supplies and relief teams to Japan. Help by donating $10 by texting MED to 80888. 

• Make a $10 donation to the Red Cross by text messaging REDCROSS to 90999 or visit to donate online. 

If you're looking for a loved one in the disaster area, Google People Finder is a good place to start." - People 

Giving What We Can!

Dinner with Prof. Alan Fenwick and others. 

It is hard to believe that I have been in Rwanda for three weeks already! Today marks the beginning of my fourth week here, and I am just as excited as I was when I first arrived. One of the many things that I enjoy about my job here is the opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world. I assumed when I first arrived that most of my encounters would be with Rwandans or American ex-pats. Yet, through various meetings and fellowships, I have met people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Kenya, the United Kingdom and many others.

Alan Fenwick was someone who I had the opportunity to meet during my first week here. Alan is a Professor of Tropical Parasitology at the School of Public Health at the Imperial College in London, England. Alan also directs the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), which is a collaborative project to assist countries in sub Saharan Africa control schistosomiasis, intestinal helminths and other Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease that leads to chronic ill-health and affects more than 200 million people in developing countries, 85% of them in sub-Saharan Africa. SCI is supported by organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and MalariaGeneva Global and others.  When Alan and I were talking over dinner about philanthropy and the huge need that exists in countries like Rwanda, he mentioned an organization called Giving What We Can. This organization was started by ordinary individuals to eliminate poverty in the developing world. To that end, the now 101 members have pledged 10% of their income, which equates to over 30 million dollars! The interesting thing to note is that these individuals come from all walks of life, they have different religious beliefs but one common purpose, to use their income to effect socio-economic change.

I know what some of you are thinking, "I have a limited income, I can't afford to give 10% to charity, I'll leave that to people like Bill Gates!" The beauty of this project is that it provides a breakdown on some of the spending done in developed countries like America on items such as ice cream (11 billion) and cigarettes (50 billion) each year. Now hopefully most of my readers don't smoke, but if we put something like that into context, its almost alarming how much is spent on that bad habit. As part of my job for Pfizer, back in the states, I talk to my clients about smoking cessation on a regular basis. One of the things that they are always astounded to hear is how much patients spend on cigarettes. Its almost ridiculous to think of low-income patients spending over $5000 each year on cigarettes yet these same patients can't afford to pay for their own health care. The point is that people spend money on the things that matter to them. If anyone disagrees, think about what matters to you, is it up-to-date hairstyles? Do a quick calculation of how much you spend at the hair salon each week and multiply that by 52, yes, you've really spent that much on your hair in a given year! (I have been guilty in the past of spending a lot of money on my hair, more than I am comfortable disclosing to the public)

Now my purpose in writing this isn't to judge anyone's spending habits, but to draw attention to the fact that we can all do more. Whether you give already through a local church or organization, your money matters and should therefore go towards causes that matter to you. Check out the Giving What We Can website to get ideas on the scope of the problem and ways that the international community can join together.

If anyone is interested in donating money, here are some organizations to consider:

Organizations close to my heart:

1. A-M Agape Blessing Ministry

2. Charity Water

3. World Vision Africa 

 Organizations working to alleviate poverty and improve healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa:

1. The Access Project

2. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

3. Giving What We Can

4. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria 

5. ONE 

6. Rwanda Works 

7. William J. Clinton Foundation

It is an important practice to take the time to research organizations thoroughly before giving any money, to make sure that they are financially accountable.

1. Give Well

If you have any organizations that are close to your heart, please list them in the comments section below, and remember to always give what you can ;)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Parlez-vous Francais? Tuvugane iKinyarwanda?


Every morning as I arrive at work, I am greeted by my colleagues with this Kinyarwanda greeting. Kinyarwanda is the native dialect of Rwanda, as well as some parts of neighboring Uganda and Burundi. The other language most common to Rwanda is French, inherited from Belgium, which colonized Rwanda in the 19th century. However, over a year ago, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, declared English as the new official language of Rwanda, leaving many Rwandans, scrambling to learn English. So as a native English speaker, I have offered my English language skills to my co-workers on the condition that they help me with my French and to a lesser degree,  Kinyarwanda.

I started learning French in the 7th grade and took it until freshmen year in High School. So with three years of French behind me and one short weekend trip to Paris after college, my French is tres mal (very bad). Whenever someone speaks to me in French, I try to warn them that Je parle en peu Francais (I speak a little French). Yet, I was amazed a few times this past week when my Franco-phonic colleagues were speaking at lunch and I understand a lot of what they were saying. I failed to contribute much to the conversation other than the occasional oui (yes) or Je ne sais pas (I don't know). Which makes me more determined than ever to re-learn French and converse adequately with my colleagues and the rest of Rwanda.

Kinyarwanda is a different story. I have found that it is a difficult language to learn, because my tongue absolutely refuses to form certain key words. Kinyarwanda is a tonal language which means words are not always pronounced as they are written. A perfect example is the word Rwanda, while we say Ra-wanda in America, most Rwandans say Gwanda because the Rw makes a Gw sound.  HUH? Yes, you read that right. Not only that, but most Rwandans can't pronounce the letters L or R, which makes for more interesting dialogue. Difficult but not impossible! I plan to learn at least some Kinyarwanda, since most of the people in the rural villages that comprise most of Rwanda, only speak this native dialect.

Here are a few Kinyarwanda words to know:

Mwaramutse:  Good Morning
Meze neza  : I'm fine
Bite? : What's up?
Yego: Yes
Oya: No
Uvuga Icyongereza? : Do you speak English?

In looking up some of these words in Kinyarwanda, I came across this interesting fact; Kinyarwanda is also the name of a new feature film produced by and starring Rwandans. It was chosen as the Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival for 2011. According to the movie's website, the movie tells the story of how Muslims and Christians helped each other during the 1994 genocide.

"At the time of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Mufti of Rwanda, the most respected Muslim leader in the country, issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from participating in the killing of the Tutsi. As the country became a slaughterhouse, mosques became places of refuge where Muslims and Christians, Hutus and Tutsis came together to protect each other. KINYARWANDA is based on true accounts from survivors who took refuge at the Grand Mosque of Kigali and the madrassa of Nyanza. It recounts how the Imams opened the doors of the mosques to give refuge to the Tutsi and those Hutu who refused to participate in the killing."