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By this Author: karenanddennis

Bussin' it to Uganda

(first part by Karen, second part by Dennis)

sunny 86 °F
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(written by Karen)
Before our bus departed on the 10-hour trip from Kigali to Kampala, Uganda, a man asked for everyone's attention and delivered a prayer. It must've worked because we made it there and back safely, unlike some unfortunate people who traveled on the same route a week later.

Our bus ride was mostly peaceful. We each took a window seat, opened the windows all the way, leaned our chairs back, and enjoyed the beautiful views. Dennis likes to stick his head completely out of the window. He says he experiences life more fully that way.


You know you are always going to get an eventful experience when you take public transportation. Like when the bus stops and several people hop on and try to sell you brochettes (kebabs) or milk or irons or sugarcane ... whatever. Or when children come and sit next to you, cramming three into two seats.


It was a short drive to the border, where we crossed with ease now that we have Rwanda resident ID cards and East African visas, which let us move through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya for free.


The bus even had entertainment. During the Rwanda part of the drive, it was all religious music videos. Once we passed into Uganda, it switched to girls-shakin-their-booties music videos.

We went to Uganda because I was invited to run a solutions journalism workshop for the Media Challenge Initiative, a non-profit working "to build the next generation of journalists in Africa." The program is so cool that President Obama even recognized it.

The organization kindly put us up in a hotel, which was incredibly kind and we were grateful. But understandably, they couldn't afford the Radisson.

We checked in at night and found our hotel room to be probably 90 degrees. No AC. We turned on the fan and opened the balcony door to let in cooler air. When it came time to go to sleep, we went to close the balcony door and realized it wouldn't lock. I called the front desk. "It doesn't lock. None of them do. Don't worry. It's safe," the woman told us. Huh. All the Uber drivers roll up the car windows when they drive around here because people will reach in and steal things, but if you say so!

The next morning we were woken up by the phone ringing. I answered. "Breakfast is ready." They had told us the complimentary breakfast was served between 7:30 and 10 a.m. It was just after 8 a.m.
"OK, but we can go anytime before 10 a.m., right?"
"Yes, anytime before 10 a.m."
"OK, goodbye."

About two minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was a different person.
"Breakfast is ready!"
"Yes, I know. Someone just called us. But we can go anytime before 10 a.m., right?"
"Yes, anytime before 10 a.m."
"OK, goodbye."

I guess they really wanted us to eat breakfast at that time. We've should have obliged because when we went down to eat an hour later, the dining area was empty and the few scraps of food leftover were cold.

Funny things — miscommunications? — like this happen on the regular in East Africa. A lot of them happened at this hotel.

After breakfast, I set out to shower, but I couldn't get the water to turn on. Again, I called the front desk.
"Hello. I'm having trouble getting the water to work in our shower."

... Ummm, what does that mean? Is someone going to come up to the room to help? A minute later the phone rang and the person on the other end told me how to get the water working. No hot water, but since our room was hot the cold water didn't feel so bad.

The hotel wasn't luxurious, but the conference was top notch. Before my presentation, we listened to a speaker talk about her experiences reporting the Rwandan genocide. She talked about the difficulty in verifying information during such a chaotic time. She mentioned the technological challenges — she typed her stories on a typewriter and ran around trying to find fax machines to send them to her editors. She talked about the lasting impact that experience had on the journalists who covered it, including herself. She said she returned to Rwanda years later and was scheduled to stay at the Hotel des Mille Collines (the hotel featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda), but she stepped inside and immediately had to turn around and leave.


In the afternoon, I taught the students about solutions journalism — rigorous reporting on how people are responding to social problems. The students were engaged and asked smart questions. At the end, one student said she thought this approach was the only way forward for her country.


We stayed one extra day, mostly so Dennis could see Kampala (I had been there last year for a research project).

(The following written by Dennis)

I had wanted to see Kampala ever since I saw the film "The Last King of Scotland" about 10 years ago and ever since Karen went there in June last summer for her work. Kampala always sounded so wild and exciting. Based on the films and on Karen's stories, I imagined a vibrant African city, full of roadside stalls selling Rolexes (burrito-like wraps), smog pumping out of cars, and strong and proud citizens. This ended up being pretty accurate. I thought it was going to be a bit crazier, but it was fun.

When you google "best things to do in Kampala," the list of items really isn't all that appealing. Karen spoke with someone at her conference on the day prior about things to do, so we came up with the following plan: start at Ggaba Beach on Lake Victoria, then head back into town and see the Kampala Old Taxi Park, then hike to the top of the Uganda National Mosque (formerly known as Gadaffi Mosque as the dictator Idi Amin was on good terms with Muammar Gadaffi) and catch a good birds-eye view of Kampala. Well...most of these were a bust.

Ggaba Beach / KK Beach is about a one-hour drive from Kampala. It's fine. The food is average to below average, the view is pretty decent, the cabanas were reasonably comfortable.



We got a taxi ride from Ggaba Beach to the Old Taxi Park, which was absolute hell. It was around 85 degrees that day and there were basically no windows in the taxi and there was no AC. It felt like 120 degrees in there. I felt cold stepping out into 85-degree weather. And the taxi park was just a circle of dirt in the middle of Kampala full of old small white buses.


And finally, as we cooled down with some milkshakes (wish I had pics of those beauties!), we realized that I could not go into the mosque as I was wearing shorts. Bummer. Oh well, let's go home and prep for the dinner and dance show at Ndere Cultural Center! ...featuring the Ndere Troupe, which was without a doubt the highlight of the day. When I listen to modern East African music and compare it to this music, I kinda wish musicians were sticking to their roots here.



The bus ride the following day was miserable. It was hot and they didn't want us to open the windows, but the AC didn't work well enough to keep the bus cool. And we took a different bus line, and the seats were smaller. But again, at least we made it home safely!

While it may sound like many aspects of the trip were a bit of a letdown, on the whole I am thrilled I was able to have the experience. I got to meet Kampala and shake the hand of that dusty, pumping, sweltering town.

Posted by karenanddennis 11:34 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

Four kings and some warthogs

Akagera Safari (Written by Dennis)

semi-overcast 81 °F
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Prior to a few months ago, I thought a safari consisted of driving out in a large 4WD open vehicle into the wilderness of Africa and hoping you see some wild animals. Karen broke this fantasy by telling me that the animals are kept in place by a fence and park officials count the animals and track them. What a joke! What a disappointment! It seemed so canned, like a Disney ride or something. So, I was a bit skeptical going into our safari weekend, but of course I still wanted to see some zebras and giraffes and such in the "wild."

To be honest, it did seem kinda canned for the first hour or two. But, I then forgot about all that.

Akagera National Park was created in 1934 by the Belgians, who occupied Rwanda at the time. Originally the park was about 1,000 square miles, but it was cut in half after the genocide to allow for the resettlement of refugees. During the Rwandan Civil War, many of the animals were poached, and all 300 lions were killed. Since that time, life has returned in abundance to the park. Now, the park is home to black rhinos, a million hippos, a million and one zebras, lions, Maasai giraffes, leopards, crocodiles, and many others, as you will see.

The drive from the entrance gate to the Akagera Game Lodge was about half an hour and I was hoping an elephant would pop up on the road or maybe a lion would bite the tire. Neither of those happened, but a large pack of baboons did hang out on and slowly cross the road right before we arrived at the lodge. The lodge was comfortable, with beds made for sumo wrestlers.


We were late to the sunset boat cruise on that first day. We were late not from rough roads or giraffes stealing Karen's hat, but from oversleeping from a nap. Our boat captain expressed his disappointment as he pointed at his watch as we arrived (even though we were only five minutes late), but at least we were still allowed on. While we disappointed the captain, our Fulbright friends Brendan and Rebecca had spoken highly of the sunset cruise and the cruise did not let us down. There must have been over 100 hippos that we could see from the boat and they were not shy about sputtering water in the air and making bubbles like kids in a pool. They have four large peg-like teeth--they are used for combat only.

Several nile crocodiles slid into the water. One was basking in the sun with his mouth wide open. A herd of buffalo rested along the shore and some white birds liked to hang out with them and eat bugs off them, our guide said. There were floating islands made of papyrus. One island--stable I think, not floating--was home to many species of birds, including the African fish eagle, which bears a resemblance to the American Bald Eagle. On the short drive back to the lodge, a zebra did pop up near the road in front of us!



Our safari took off the following morning at 6:45 A.M. We ate breakfast to the tune of one of the most glorious sunrises I had seen in quite some time.


We had the safari jeep and the guide and driver for the next 10-11 hours. The plan was to start in the higher elevations on the south side of the park and make our way down to the most northern part of the park, a distance of roughly 30 miles (but which took 4 hours to drive). It was cold and misty in the highlands that morning. Zebras are glorious creatures, and they are a dime a dozen in the park, and we saw many herds high up there. Buffalo trampled the ground as well. Birds of all sorts darted in front. Antelope scurried around, if they weren't fighting to the death. There was generally a good animal sighting every 5 minutes, and this remained true throughout the day.


The air was brisk that morning, but as we descended the heat made us peel off the sweatshirts. The lower altitudes brought out the Masai giraffes, so graceful on their stick legs. The giraffes eat acacia leaves and twigs--they have special tongues to maneuver around the plant's thorns. They are peaceful and curious creatures.



I was most excited to see an elephant. I had seen videos of how protective and assertive these beasts can be, so I wanted to see their great strength. While I did see a few elephants, it was unfortunately from several hundred feet away, so my assessment of their power will have to wait.


"Simba" is a word in Swahili for "lion" or "king." We were incredibly fortunate to see four kings. It is rare to see them, as there are only about 20 lions in the park (our guide had only seen them four times in two years). It was hot in the mid-day sun and the lions preferred to lie in the shade--yet, romance can overcome the sweltering heat, as we did see a male lion attempt to court his lioness. Lions weigh around 400 pounds and I think these are the only creatures that could take down our dog Gustav.



After the lions, we ate lunch on a lake in the north, with hippos as our lunch buddies. They continued to snort and sputter.


After lunch, we were driving along and made a sharp turn. Out of nowhere, this big fat hippo appeared! I yelled "hippo!!" They are clearly massive when you see more than just their face. These guys weigh around 3,000 pounds on average. With that kind of weight, no wonder he wasn't really afraid of us.


Warthogs are a dime a dozen also. But, that is completely fine with me as they have this springy step and their tails jiggle in the air. They are without a doubt the happiest looking animals in the park.


We tried to find the rare rhinos that inhabit the park (there are fewer than 20), but all I got was a million painful bites from the tsetse fly as we went through their swampy area.

After the safari, we celebrated by the pool. And we watched some of the Miss Rwanda competition. We had heard about the infamous Josiane--many viewers did not find her attractive, perhaps it was for her modern hairstyle and offbeat dress? She won Miss Popularity but lost Miss Rwanda.


What struck me most about the park was how untamed and wild the earth used to be. When the park is contrasted with how humans have shaped it, the world we live in seems too organized and you really only see a few species of animals in our daily lives. it makes me sad that we have scared off many of the animals. Akagera will remind me of the way things used to be.


Posted by karenanddennis 11:44 Archived in Rwanda Comments (5)

My haircut

(written by Dennis)

semi-overcast 73 °F
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When I started thinking about getting a haircut maybe a month ago, I decided that I didn't want to go to a mzungu salon (a place that caters to Europeans). Generally I like to immerse if possible. What's the worst that could happen? If my hair got all botched up, I could just have it trimmed real short. Jean Petite (Little John) at the salon down the street has done good work on my beard, so I figured I'd give it a go. Also, I like to support the local Gikondo (our neighborhood) businesses. As usual, when I walked down the street toward the salon, I got many stares (and greetings) from the neighbors. They don't see many mzungus along the street here, nor do they in the hair salon. So, we will see how this goes--always an adventure!

Now, this is the salon that Jean Pierre (JP) runs -- he is the one who took us to church (as referenced in the "Cleaning, conversation, and church" blog post). JP greets me as we walk in and says "Dennis! Good to see you. Why didn't you write me back?" My rate of reply via text, Whatsapp, etc are, sadly, low. Despite his frustration with my lack of responsiveness, he sets me up with the chair of Little John.


Over the next hour while I lost a pound of hair, Little John told me some of his story. His father and family members were killed in the genocide in Burundi, Rwanda's neighbor to the south, in 1993. After the genocide, he worked in Burundi as a mental health counselor but further conflict led him to flee to Rwanda. He has since worked as a barber in Kigali.

He asked JP for some scissors. After a few minutes, JP came back with some office-type scissors, the only kind available in the salon. The blades seemed a bit dull on my hair, but the end result? I was looking pretty sharp.

After the work of Little John, I got my hair shampooed. No, it was shampooed twice. And each time involved lots of rubbing. And then there was some oil put on my scalp. And then some other cleaner on my face. Then an oil on my face. Then some aftershave. Then my beard was combed several times. I think it went on for a total of 20 minutes. It was great.

Now it comes time for the bill. I walked up to JP at the cash register and was thinking it would be at least $4. Nope, for that hour and a half of luxury treatment, it was $2.50.


Posted by karenanddennis 12:29 Archived in Rwanda Comments (3)

From sweating to shivering

An indulgent sisters weekend (written by Karen)

semi-overcast 35 °F
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In January, I drank tap water for the first time in 4.5 months.
This is because I escaped to Geneva, Switzerland, for a quick weekend.


OK, that photo is above Turkey, but Switzerland looked similar.

I went to Geneva to attend a constructive journalism conference, which was awesome and I will talk about it in an upcoming post. But this short post is dedicated to the 40 hours of bliss that I had with my sister who joined me after the conference.

For those who don't know my sister, Debbie is a full-time neurologist with an ambitious law professor husband, three active children, and a new puppy. Also, she lives in Luxembourg. Needless to say, it's not often that we get uninterrupted quality sister time.

It was the best moment when I reached the hotel after the conference and she was waiting for me, with champagne in the mini fridge. We greeted each other with an immediate mini dance party that included jumping on the beds in excitement.

The next day and a half were awesome, and by awesome I mean gluttonous. We ate raspberry tarts and chocolate lava cakes, slept in, took a long walk, ate fondu, drank wine, ate more dessert, saw two movies, had popcorn for dinner, saw live music, and drank a bottle of champagne in the park. Enough said.


Thank you Herwig for managing all the kids, furry and otherwise, so we could indulge!


Posted by karenanddennis 11:47 Archived in Switzerland Comments (2)

Students make me smile

(Written by Karen)

sunny 76 °F
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By now, if you've been following the blog, I think you've got a feeling for how my teaching weeks go, so I won't recap my last course in full. But I will mention some interesting tidbits.

Dennis and I drove to Butare on a Sunday evening, the night before I started a new class. Just before arriving, I was texting (don't worry - Dennis was at the wheel) with my class representative to prepare for class the following morning when she told me that the students had a different class with another teacher the following morning. Huh? But my class was scheduled to start that Monday. After contacting the other professor, I learned that he had not taught his course the previous two weeks because of the holidays (during Christmas and New Year's). Our course calendar did not indicate any days off for the holidays, which didn't make sense because Dec. 25 and 26 and Jan. 1 and 2 were national holidays, but apparently the students took both full weeks off. So, the professor decided to hold his class this week, not paying attention to the fact that the students were scheduled to start a new class at that time. After some discussion, we decided that the other professor would teach in the mornings and I would teach in the afternoons. I suppose it was a good lesson in letting go of my rigid schedule.

This last course I taught was called "Introduction to News Writing and Reporting", and it was with the first-year students (who I had in my previous course). They're a highly engaged group. They would ask questions all day long if I didn't stop them as we needed to get through the material. They often take photos of my slides, and sometimes they even surround the screen in an effort to copy down the notes.


For the first time, the woman at the university in charge of translating text into braille for the visually impaired students was able to do so in time for the students to complete a homework assignment and bring their work (in braille) to class. The assignment was to pitch a news story idea. The visually impaired students, one by one, presented their pitches to the class by reading the braille printed on several hard plastic sheets. Pretty cool. They also got to pitch their stories to three Swedish journalists volunteering at our school for a few weeks, who saved me from having to evaluate news stories from all 70 students by myself. Even cooler.


I wanted to bring the day's newspapers to class so that the students could read them during class, and we could have a nice discussion about news values (what makes a story newsworthy). So I asked the class representative to get the newspapers and bring them to class. When I arrived, she handed me a small stack of newspapers. There were a handful of copies of the student-run newspaper, plus two copies of The New Times - the largest newspaper in Rwanda. All of the copies were from October. Oops. I had intended for her to get that day's papers, but I guess that wasn't clear. Through the course of the week, I learned that it's impossible to buy a newspaper in Rwanda's second largest city. Let that sink in for a minute. That's like not being able to buy a newspaper in Los Angeles. With no access to newspapers, and minimal access to the internet, it was a reminder of how much these students rely on radio to get their news.


One thing I love about my students is how appreciative they are of feedback. When I evaluate an assignment and send them feedback via email, they often write back and thank me for my comments. It's also common for them to tell me that they promise to improve on the next assignment.

At the end of my previous course - the research methods one - I gave the students a survey to evaluate my teaching. This is required at VCU, and its included in my annual report, so I tried to replicate the survey here. Based on the results, I don't think the students fully understood the concept of constructive criticism, but their responses sure did make me smile as you can see from a sampling below.


Posted by karenanddennis 12:02 Archived in Rwanda Comments (0)

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