Friday, July 31, 2009

Getting around Kigali

Kigali is a pretty large city, spread across many hills, the path between two points is rarely a straight line but rather a winding path down then back up the primary boulevards running through the city. As we often travel in a group, we usually hire private taxis to get from one place to another. These are licensed, but unmarked and in private vehicles of varying degrees of upkeep. The drivers generally speak some French or English so it makes getting around a bit easier for us muzungus. There are some drawbacks though, they are far harder to wave down on the road, being unmarked and fairly rare it can take a while to find one and it generally involves making a fool of yourself as you wave at solo drivers who aren't taxis at all. Not surprisingly, they are also rather expensive. Never less than 3,000 francs (~$6) and up to 5,000 (~$10) for a ten minute ride it adds up pretty quickly, of course the price depends largely on how much you want to haggle with the driver who insists that the rate is twice what you paid this morning.

The far more common option, and what seems to be the locals choice in most cases is riding a moto-taxi. These are small 250cc motorcycles always running about looking for fares, their green helmets making it clear they are for hire and licensed. The odds of finding a driver who speaks English is far less than with the taxis but for the trouble you are rewarded with an exciting ride and a far cheaper fare. Most rides come in under 500 francs (~$1) and the trip is usually quicker than a car as the motos liberally lane split, pass and pay only passing attention to traffic laws.

They are an amazingly efficient mode of getting around, perfect really, as you are often alone and just trying to travel a few miles. It can seem a bit chaotic but it does work, thousands of motos spreading about delivering their passengers to their destinations quickly and without fuss.

Of course Kigali also sports the ubiquitous mini-buses, but as in Peru I've yet to really figure out the routes or be brave enough to hop on one just to see where it goes. The language barrier (and cultural barrier, though less so) is still extremely high and I don't want to be responsible for holding anyone up, but I'm sure the fares there are far cheaper still than the moto taxis.

Some of us might go explore one of the national parks this weekend and this brings up one of the other oddities of Africa, that car rentals are really non-existent. Perhaps because credit cards are completely useless here, or perhaps just because there isn't enough need, it doesn't seem that one can reasonably rent a vehicle for a few days at a time. The only real options are either taking a long distance bus, at a low cost but considerable time penalty, or the common option for tourists, to hire a private cab for the day (or two) to take you. We'll see which we end up with.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Prepaid World

Something I've noticed in other developing countries as well, but especially true here in Rwanda, is that most of all services are prepaid. As in Peru, cell phones here are almost universally on prepaid plans, you 'charge' your phone with money by purchasing cards at local shops or from street vendors. These have a code behind a scratch off panel which you then enter into your phone to credit that amount. As you make calls, use data or send SMS's the charges are debited from your account. When you use all your credit, your phone will simply stop working until you credit more money.

One advantage of such a system is that acquiring a cell phone is a five minute affair. You literally walk into store, purchase a SIM card for a few dollars (and a phone if you need one) and off you go. No registering your name or address, checking your credit etc.. That is probably one reason cell phones are so popular in the country as a whole, the penetration rate is around 25%, growing quickly.

It also changes the dynamics of how people use their phones. Receiving calls and text messages is free here, and you are only charged once a call connects, so people will sometimes 'flash' someone, by calling them but then immediately hanging up when it starts ringing before the other party can pick up. The recipient can then call back, paying for the call instead of the original caller.

It strikes me that the prepaid model is a far better one for the consumer as opposed to the post-paid model of the states. I think post-paid plans are actually just a step that carriers make once it can be trusted that the customer base has the funds to pay for their service. It is far easier to rack up a large cell phone bill in the states inadvertently than it is here, you are largely removed from the cost of your actions until the bill arrives. This is a great thing for the carriers, leading to ever increasing revenues via the addition of instant gratification services such as premium content etc..

It also leads to the situation of most of us paying for far more than we use. I can't remember the last time I got even close to using the number of minutes on my plan, yet there is no plan available with fewer. I am forced to pay for something I will not use. I am using an unlocked Sidekick while here, complete with data, email, web, using MyNewsroom to read blogs etc.. and I think my total outlay for the month will be less than $25, all with similar usage as the states. Compare that to the cheapest Sidekick plan of ~$60 in the US and it is clear why few companies there offer any reasonable prepaid plans.

But prepaid as a concept goes much farther than just cell phones here, and in some cases in ways that are borderline inhumane. Electricity is provided on a prepaid basis, again 'charging' your address with a set number of credits and then having it debited as you use it. You can find out your balance via cell phone and even recharge your account via a similar scratch card and sms system as buying minutes. My hotel stay was also prepaid, the first time I've ever paid for my entire stay upon arrival.

What is clear is that a large portion of the population is living hand-to-mouth which is why prepaid is so prevalent. Even the taxis and motorcycle taxis operate on a pay as you go system of sorts, one in five taxi rides will involve stopping to fill up with a $1 of gas, every vehicle constantly running on empty. There is no such thing as 'fill her up'.

But perhaps the most shocking case of this is health care. If you go to the hospital and are admitted, you have to prepay for seven days of stay there, regardless of how long you are expected to stay. We had dinner with Dr Karl again a few days ago and he told us a story of one of the Batwa women needing to go to hospital due to complications during child birth. Even though she was obviously needing care in order for her child to survive, the 30,000 franc (~$50) seven day prepay fee was firm. He and a UN representative who was visiting split the cost, since in a country with a per capita income of ~$400 the Batwa villager obviously could not afford it on her own. (baby and mother went home healthy a few days later)

Of course as shocking as that might seem to us in the states, where at least you would be cared for first, we are still just as primitive in then requiring the patient to pay for the thousands of dollars of treatment, often a sum that is surprising and completely opaque to the patient until after the services have been rendered.

In short it is interesting to see how an economy and capitalism in general responds to differing conditions of liquidity in the population. In some cases, as in cell phones, I think the consumer actually comes out ahead, in others, such as health care it seems borderline inhumane, but perhaps it is just a step required on the path to economic growth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ngoma ICTR Information Center Opening

On Monday we were invited to attend the grand opening celebration for the Ngoma ICTR information center. This was the last of ten information centers opening across the country aimed at providing not just information about the ICTR processes, but also access to the internet and law resources to the local population in these fairly remote villages.

Ngoma is about a two hour drive from Kigali, so we had to get an early start. With that came some amazing light as the sun started to peek over the horizon, illuminating the landscape with a perfect soft light. Rwanda really is a beautiful country, almost impossibly lush, with hills spreading all around. Almost all the land is devoted to farming of one type or another and the hills aren't wasted, each aggressively terraced to increase the farmable land. We passed through a few tiny villages on the way there and Monday being market day the roads were crowded with villagers carrying huge loads of bananas, milk and other items on their heads or strapped to their bikes in giant bundles.

The Ngoma information center is located in the district court house. A huge white building, it stood out from the surrounding red houses of the village which were mostly constructed in the traditional style of brick or sticks and mud from the clay soil. The center itself consisted of two rooms, one containing four computers while the other consisted of a library of reference books on various law subjects. The information centers have dual goals, to provide law materials for the local judges and prosecutors and more importantly provide public access to the ICTR information and the internet in general. In villages without electricity, water or sanitation systems, free public access to the internet is a powerful public service, especially at the going rate of $420/month rate for basic DSL access.

The ceremony itself was something else. The president of the ICTR as well as UN representatives were in attendance and as such a good deal of fanfare was prepared. A group of local dancers and singers put on an amazing show, followed by formal speeches from all the VIPs, a catered lunch and yes, then more dancing.

We did find out one interesting tidbit on the way home. The government is undergoing a nationwide program to install fiber into all the various regions. It is fascinating to see these countries leapfrog the western world, from skipping straight to cell phones, to larger infrastructure projects like this fiber installation. Although I am a big believer in the internet being an amazing resource, one does wonder how it fits into villages which still exist and function without electricity. Perhaps a similar model as the ICTR centers will begin taking place, where villages will have internet cafes or access points for those wanting to use them.

The drive back was as breathtaking as the journey there, and we stopped a few times between Kinyarwanda lessons from our taxi driver to spy some monkeys and pelicans on the side of the road. This country's beauty really can't be overstated, but nor can the vast difference in the life people lead here - a life that has a certain romantic appeal in it's simplicity and purity, but also one without even the most basic creature comforts of home.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Service

Most of the group decided to attend a local church service today. Well over 90% of Rwandans are Christians of one denomination or another and most of them seem to be actively practicing. By chance we arrived about half way through the first service, which was in English, which gave us an opportunity to sit and take in the sermon. The topic of the day was how to have a successful marriage, a practical guide rather than a spiritual one, more akin to a counseling session than a sermon. Advice such as how to communicate with your spouse, to make time to have fun with them and others seemed universal, just as relevant in the states as here.

But now and then, a little antidotes would make it clear we were still in Africa. "Sit next to your wife at events, do not make her sit in back while you go to the front" .. or .. "Drive in the same car as your wife" were reminders that some in Rwanda are still struggling with their older ways. It was nice to see the church taking an active roll in changing the family life and values, and by the looks of it the congregation was engaged throughout, listening intently.

After the English service came to a close we decided to stay a bit longer for the beginning of the next Kinyarwanda service, mostly to catch some of the music. The church quickly began to fill, and soon it was alive with clapping and singing to various devotional songs. Some of us did our best to sing along, as the words were being projected and the music infectious. This I think was appreciated by the locals as we got many smiles over our excited clapping and butchered singing.

In other news after our experience yesterday at the Batwa village I decided I should probably polish my shoes. My Merills have been with me for quite a few years, even resoled once, but the toes were now more blue than black. A quick trip to the store and some elbow grease fixed that and I'll hopefully now be less of an embarrassment to the locals.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Batwa Pygmies of Kigali

Today was a day I doubt I'll ever forget. Nell arranged for us to go visit a Batwa village just outside Kigali with a friend of hers, Dr Karl Weyrauch of the Pygmy Survival Alliance. The Batwa are another ethnic group existing across Africa, but in far fewer numbers than the Tutsi and Hutus of Rwanda, accounting for about 1% of the population. They were traditionally a hunter gatherer people but have been pushed out of their land by the more dominant Hutus and Tutsis and now live in poverty on the land that noone else wants, scattered across the country.

Dr Karl, a Seattle native, has been working with one specific village near Kigali for about a year and half in cooperation with some local groups. The village of 140 is on the outskirts of Kigali, balanced on the side of a steep hill, on land that is hard to live on and even harder to farm. The people are traditionally nomadic, so their housing has always been temporary, consisting of leaf and branch huts spread in familial groups. Without water, sewage or electricity, the people have been at the edge of survival for hundreds of years, the marginalized of the marginalized.

Seeing the degree of progress that has been made in the village in 18 months by just a few volunteers and pittance of money is incredible. But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is seeing how the aid was administered, not just how much thought had gone into implementing it, but that the wisdom of the villagers themselves was always respected, used to maximize the effect of any help.

It is almost too daunting to record how much has been done, but I would be remiss to not include some highlights and their effects. One of the first requests from the villagers was to supply the villagers with shoes or sandals. Rwanda has a strong culture of footwear as a status symbol, and the Batwa were constantly ostracized for not being able to afford any. This would cause the children to be unable to attend school because of ridicule, the mothers unwilling to go to health clinics for fear of heckling. A few suitcases of shoes changed all that. Suddenly the kids could attend school (a few are now at the top of their class) and the villagers would be able to interact in the larger Rwandan world without ridicule. Of course health care was necessary as well, so purchasing basic plans was also at the top of the list, but again for a cost ridiculously low, $1 a month.

So many of these problems are ones that exist purely from having to spend all of one's energy just to survive, either working for a few francs as a day laborer or trying your best to farm from the rocky soil. As such, the people knew some things were needed, latrines, some kind of well, but just lacked the food stores to be able to dedicate the manpower to build them. Here, all it took was a bag of rice and flour to feed the village for a week with the promise to build a well during that time. A simple solution, one that empowers the villagers, but supremely effective as clean water and sanitation dramatically decrease the spread of disease and infection.

Of course direct health care is sometimes required as well, but Dr Karl emphasized that by and large cheap and simple antibiotics worked wonders in the vast majority of cases. Infections of one kind or another were common, but easily taken care of, and as the education of how to deal with open wounds continues likely to become less common.

Other solutions were ones of expertise. When we were there today, the villagers were spreading 10 tons of manure (at the cost of $10) on newly built terraces they were shown how to build. Terracing isn't a miracle cure for the rocky red soil they have, but it should help the soil retain more of it's nutrients and again sets the villagers on a path of self determination where just basic survival isn't in jeopardy.

But the most amazing thing of all of our time there was the people. Huge smiles and handshakes, laughing all day long, at the impossibly tall muzungu ('white person') or just at jokes they made which we didn't understand but were infectious regardless. This might be a people on the edge of extinction, but their spirit has never been higher, undoubtedly largely because they have been shown someone cares, but more importantly that they themselves are changing their situation for the better, that they are far better off now than they were a year ago, and will be even more so a year from now.

To that, Dr Karl deserves an incredible amount of credit. His approach is so spot on, always sensitive not to create dependence, but rather independence through his aid. That by enabling the villagers to solve their own problems, he is empowering them as well, giving them not just the means for survival but the pride that comes with surviving on your own terms. And this he does not via some huge organization, or with a giant budget, but solely through volunteers, doctors, engineers, paying their own way to give a helping hand and getting much in return through the experience. This combined with the simplicity and effectiveness of his solutions means his budget last year was less than $10,000. Think of that! $10,000 to help a village make incredible steps towards health and independence. It just blows your mind, I just can't get over it.

After instructing the villagers on the use of the manure, they then did some basic health work, administering deworming medicine, attending to any medical issues and weighing and measuring the children's growth. All the while the people still smiling, always appreciative, patient and ever so grateful.

Finally, before we left some of them gathered into a group to sing to us. As soon as they began it sent shivers down your spine, a dozen of them singing in harmony with a kind of energy that exudes a happiness, a sheer joy that made you almost jealous. I can't even explain how moving it was as they sang a traditional wedding song the main chorus apparently meaning 'though we will grow old and hunched over, in heaven we will stand tall'. It was, in short, just incredible.

Dr Karl's organization, the Pygmy Survival Alliance, which he has organized to help spread his program to other Batwa villages will soon be getting it's 501c3 status. If you ever donate, perhaps especially if you never donate, I cannot recommend doing so to his organization any more strongly. He is implementing common sense solutions for a minimal cost that are doing incredible things rebuilding these people not just physically but spiritually as well.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day One

Provigil is a wonderful thing when traveling, I've actually managed to feel reasonably coherent all day despite just a few hours of sleep in the past few days.

Our meeting with the Supreme Court Justice went well, my French was passable (barely), but in the end they found that a staffer there that could go from Kenyarawandan to English was far more effective, having a shared world view with the Justice made communication far easier. She was very supportive of the mission of the project and supportive of the overall goal of making this information available as widely as possible.

The people of Rwanda have been uniformly friendly. From our taxi driver to the grocery store checker, they are all quick to smile and patient even as we know none of their native tongue. French is far more prevalent than I had thought it would be, and English is also quite common, so strangely I find interacting with the locals here far easier than when in Peru or even Mexico.

Kigali is in many ways a spitting image of the other large cities I've been to in developing countries. Full of cars and intense traffic, motorcycles threading by cars (saw one with an eight foot ladder on board today) and people walking about everywhere. The city is home to well over a million people during the day but in the evening a mass exodus ensues as everyone returns home to the surrounding areas. It is hard to know where Kigali ends and where these begin, the city sprawling across the hillside, itself a giant bowl, as far as the eye can see.

I had a minor panic attack this afternoon as the laptop I bought and configured specifically for the project failed to boot, indicating that the hard drive wasn't working. Thankfully, twenty screws later (all via a UtiliKey no less) I found that the drive had just unseated itself and we were back in business.

The rest of the group has been here a week now, I am a late arrival. Most of them are involved in a project working with a youth group called 'Never Again Rwanda' teaching ten students about cinematography. The goal is to help them film and produce their own short over the course of a few weeks. That is a tall order, but Nell and Mark, the two film experts on the team are making solid progress.

From what I have heard from the others, the food situation here has been a bit of a mixed bag. I seem to have lucked out tonight though, as we discovered a fantastic (but swank) Indian restaurant. The food was fantastic and it was a great reward for the rest of the team which has been hard at work for the past week.

Now it is time to try to get my clock working on by Rwandan standards, so off to bed, hopefully to wake refreshed sans chemical enhancement.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I've arrived

The gods were smiling on me for the first leg of my trip. The agent at the ticket counter confirmed my ticket, then offered to put me in an exit row, which somehow still had an open seat. This made the seven hour flight not just bearable but downright enjoyable as I got to know my seating companion, an older Dutch man returning to visit his family. As I looked out the window as we arrived in Amsterdam I instantly regretted not booking my flight to spend a night here. Idyllic is a fitting word for the countryside there and knowing that Amsterdam is filled with thousands upon thousands of bicycles made me doubly sad that I wouldn't get to spend more time there.

The Amsterdam airport displayed the kind of efficiency one would expect for one of Europe's bigger airports, the transfer stations completely automated and the floors spotless. After a few hours here, enjoying an espresson and breakfast baguette I hopped onto the next flight to Nairobi. Sadly, the gods weren't so kind this time in the leg room department, but I did get to know a large Kenyan family quite well as they balanced their three year old across their laps for the next seven hours.

A long layover in Nairobi and onto yet another flight, finally delivering to my destination in Kigali. Nell was nice enough to meet me at the airport despite the 2AM arrival, probably a good thing since at this point the 30 hours of traveling had taken their toll.

It is too early for me to give any impressions of Rwanda, my view is only of the dark airport and the inside of the comfortable hotel we are staying at. I will quickly comment though that the birds here are rather loud and have most unusual songs compared to what I am used to, far more elaborate.

As it turns out I am going to be putting my two hours of sleep to the test, as members of the project are meeting with the supreme court justice of Rwanda this morning. This wouldn't be the type of meeting I would normally attend, but I am the only French speaker in the group and said justice does not speak English. It will be an interesting test to say the least for my rather rusty French, hopefully I do not end the day in less accommodating conditions. :)

That is all for now, as I should probably save my remaining coherence for then.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Long Flights

Well I'm in the airport waiting to board the first of three flights to get myself to Kigali. The first leg of the journey is going to take me to Amsterdam, where I hope to get out for an hour to poke around, then off to Nairobi for a few more hours before finally hopping into Kigali at some ungodly hour. Total travel time is going to be the better part of two days, which is kind of amazing when you consider jets don't exactly go slowly. I suppose my carbon footprint is going to be back in the red despite riding my bike and bus to work for the past few years.

I am prepared for the long flight with an iPhone loaded with some horrible rentals and a Kindle loaded with enough sci-fi to keep me busy for a week. Part of me really enjoys long flights, there is nothing you can do except sit there, nothing you should be doing instead, no chore you should be focusing on. In a way it is relaxing because of its confinement, in that you are doing the best you can just by enduring. I think I would make a good inmate.

Time to board in a few minutes, hurray for being able to tether iPhones to steal interwebz in the airport.

Off to Rwanda

As most of you know, I'm headed to Rwanda for a month. I happened across the opportunity through a friend of mine involved with a UW project which interviewed judges and prosecutors involved with the trials surrounding the genocide. In September of last year they gathered hours upon hours of footage exploring the goals and challenges of bringing justice, and possibly even more importantly reconciliation to Rwanda. The goal of the project this summer is to find ways of distributing said footage in ways such that it will be available to the Rwandan people. One method of doing so that is being explored is via mobile phones, which is where I come in. I've decided to try to help them use mobile technology to see whether we might be able to spread the information in video or audio form to a broader swatch of Rwanda.

When first becoming involved with the project I will admit to being somewhat skeptical as to the use of mobile technology to achieve this purpose. I didn't know much about Rwanda or Sub Saharan African in general, but it seemed far fetched. As it turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong. Mobile phones are incredibly wide spread, and in many ways are used in the same ways we use our personal computers. A good portions of Rwandans pay for their electricity using SMS, farmers find out the current spot price for their crops via text-messaging, in some parts of Africa it is common to use pre-paid minutes as a form of currency, transferring them instantly as a form of payment.

So part of my goal while in Rwanda is to explore and implement some solutions to deliver this content. I've built some prototype systems here that I'll be testing and I'll be helping set up information kiosks at the ICTR kiosks to deliver the video content.

My second (but not secondary) goal is to make some contacts in Rwanda with local businessmen and officials to see if there might be a system I could build during my time there that would be useful to the general population. Something not related to the genocide, perhaps something with an educational bias or an information delivery system of some kind. If you have any ideas along those lines, feel free to let me know, I'll be exploring many different options while there.

As usual when I'm off somewhere random, I'll be keeping this blog pretty up to date, so if you are interested, tune on in. I can't promise that it will always be entertaining, as a matter of fact there will probably be a good deal of technical posts as I document what I'm doing, but I'll do my best to keep it fairly interesting.

Lastly, a big shout out and thanks to David and especially Eric at Trileet for letting me take this little sabbatical. Eric you are both the best friend and best business partner I could hope for and I thank you for humoring my little adventures now and then.