Lessons Learned

Moto taxi drivers like these are all over the place in Kigali. They even have extra helmets for you to wear, though I seriously doubt the helmet would protect you at all in a crash.
Moto taxi drivers like these are all over the place in Kigali. They even have extra helmets for you to wear, though I seriously doubt the helmet would protect you at all in a crash.

Chili powder is not universal.

It had been a week and I was feeling homesick — perhaps reasonable under the circumstances: I am nearly 9,000 miles from home, the season has abruptly flipped from winter to summer, and my husband and friends are in Seattle starting a new school term while I wait impatiently for approval to start research, with very little to do in the meantime.

So, I bought food. This is a simple sentence but it sums up a more complicated reality. First, I had to flag down a motorcycle taxi and explain where I wanted to go in a combination of English and French and no Kinyarwanda; many moto taxi drivers speak mostly the latter, and I learned that the hard way after a driver dropped me off at an entirely different market than the one I had thought I was requesting. (I also learned that pencil skirts and moto taxis do not mix well.) Once at the market, I discovered that the ingredients I had presumed would be easy to find were, in fact, not. Other unexpected things were available in vast quantities. What I bought, in the end, amounted to most of the ingredients to make three or four different dishes, with one or two (mostly key variables) missing from each.

Here are the things I could find:

  • High-end cheese (Parmesan, Gouda, and things with fancy intentional mold growth)
  • High-end meat (salami in packages, prosciutto in packages)
  • Big chunks of beef
  • Ferrero Rocher chocolates
  • Paprika in Sam’s Club sized quantities
  • Many, many avocados at very cheap prices
  • Pineapple

Here are things I could not find:

  • Sour cream
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Boneless chicken
  • Chili powder
  • Tortillas
  • Cream (to be fair, this one I just did not look hard enough for; it’s hard to tell the difference between a bunch of products all labeled “fresh cheese” in various languages that are really yogurt, cheese, and cream)
  • Cooking utensils, including measuring spoons and cups
  • Plastic bags (as many expat blogs will tell you in more or less fear-mongering tones, these are illegal in Rwanda)

So, with my myriad ingredients, but no chili powder, I made an acceptable but barely spicy version of fajitas. I made tortillas. I opened what I thought was cream cheese to mix with buttermilk to make sour cream, and discovered that I had actually purchased sour cream in the first place (Who knew that the Dutch for “fresh cheese” means sour cream?!) Then I covered everything with plates to keep away the fruit flies and ate the food with two friends while we watched a movie (some things never change!).

Bureaucracy, on the other hand, is everywhere.

Any of my international friends in Seattle are quick to tell me that U.S. immigration bureaucracy is terrible. I do not doubt this, but have so far only needed a passport alone to enter most countries I visit. Staying long-term outside the U.S. is a new experience, as is the bureaucracy required to make it happen.

To stay in Rwanda for nine months, I need a visa. Getting this visa requires paperwork, including:

  • A completed application
  • A passport photo
  • My actual passport
  • A letter of recommendation from the Rwandan university supervising my research, saying that my research is important to Rwandan goals
  • A letter of recommendation from my HOME university saying that my research is important for my degree
  • A notarized police clearance letter from the Washington State Patrol affirming that I have not been convicted for a crime in the last six months
  • My CV
  • My university transcript
  • A copy of the research approval form from the local university supervising my research
  • A recommendation letter from the Rwandan Ministry of Education in support of my research
  • A receipt showing that I had paid for the visa. I could not actually pay for the visa in the same office where I submitted the paperwork; instead I had to fill out the paperwork, obtain a case number, and take that case number a mile down the road to the Bank of Kigali, where I paid approximately $50 in cash to the teller and received a stamped receipt. I then took the stamped receipt back to the visa office and added it to my forms, whereupon an officer took it, shook his head that I was turning all of this in after the morning (I insisted that I had been there in the morning, but had to leave to pay the fee), but accepted it anyway and told me to return Friday afternoon to pick up my passport (stamped, presumably, with a visa).

I have so far returned many Fridays and the visa has not been ready. I always am told “tomorrow, it will definitely be ready tomorrow.” When will tomorrow come? Who knows. But meanwhile, lesson learned: Bureaucracy requires comfort food.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *