Thursday, 23 August 2012

Umuganda & Akabanga: Running & Liming in Surprising Rwanda

The Believed - Amazing How the Country Has Turned Around 
I have to apologise to my huge ardent fan base (all 21 followers and perhaps as many as 5 others in 204 countries) for the lateness of this blog posting about my Rwanda adventures, which is about 3 months overdue. Let’s just say a 6-week vacation to 6 cities in 4 countries in early summer, and too much of a social life in Dar, got in the way.  But, as an eager wannabe first time mother would say, “better late than never.” My trip to Rwanda at the end of May 2012 was the 60th country I have visited in my short life, and was perhaps the most surprising.  Generally associated with the horrific genocide of 1994, when 1 million people were slaughtered in about 100 days, I was pleasantly shocked at how clean, orderly, developed and beautiful was the capital city of Kigali.  Words you normally do not associate with Dar es Salaam or perhaps any other Sub-Saharan African cities.  I was team leader (again) of a group of CUSO International and VSO volunteers based in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, who were running the Kigali Peace Marathon on May 27th, to raise money for the economic empowerment of women in East Africa.  This was right on the heels of our successful run at the Kilimanjaro Marathon in February, where we raised over US$10,000 for education programmes in Tanzania, and drank the bar at the Honey Badger Lodge dry over several days. 

My New Most Favourite Airline in the World
When I tried booking my flight on the national carrier Rwandair and applying for my visa online, I had an inkling feeling to expect something special from Rwanda.  The online visa application process was extremely user-friendly and a PDF of my entry visa was emailed to me the next day.  An even bigger surprise came when I was booking my flight.  For some reason when I got to the credit card payment part, I kept getting an error message.  I therefore decided to send an email explaining my problem to the generic address that was on the website. I was not hopeful of getting a response, as my experience with emailing airlines in this part of the world with questions has not been good.  But less than 5 minutes after sending the email, I got a response saying someone from the Rwandan office would contact me.  A couple seconds later my cell phone rang and it was the airline apologizing for the inconvenience I was experiencing, and confirming with me that someone from head office would contact me (take note Fly540 and “im”Precision Air).  Later that evening while running on the treadmill (I was training for a full marathon you know) someone did call from Rwanda and gave me alternate instructions on what to do.  After trying to pay with the card again the next day and it still not working, I emailed Rwandair again.  They said to come into the office in Dar and pay cash, and they would waive the US$35 fee for not ticketing online.  

Bet You Don't See These Type of Faces on an AA Flight
What is this?  This sort of service is unheard of where I come from.  When I was on American Airlines from Montreal to Miami in June this year, the frumpy stewardess poured me a cup of tea which leaked over my arm and on the tray table because there was hole in the cup.  When I pointed it out to her she said “Chances of that happening is a million to one”, dumped a couple napkins on my tray and continued along her way.  By the way American Airlines, your stewardesses all look like they were in the casting call for The Golden Girls.  If there was an emergency on your planes – they would be the first ones reaching for the oxygen.   And while I am at it, your US$25 charge for the bloody 1st check-in bag within North America, and the overpriced food, blanket and head phones that you sell (when you have it on board), sucks big time.  A cookie for $5 dollars – really!  No wonder you had to file for bankruptcy recent AA.

They Don't Call it That for Nothing - As I Discovered on Sunday
Anyway back to the ticketing story with my new most favourite airline in the world (Emirates is a close second by the way Karyn and Phil).  The next day I got a message from Canada saying that my credit card was suspended due to suspicious activity - again.  Sometime in April, my card got cancelled as someone had charged 2 Pizza Pizza pizzas, 2 airline tickets on USAir to Florida, something on Kijiji, and sexual escort services (you can do that?) to my card.  By the way, whoever the culprit is, I hope they got something itchy and leaky from the escort, that required more than just a cortisone cream.  Anyway I called my bank, got the card reactivated, booked the ticket and then sent a nice email to all the customer relations people Rwandair saying how much I enjoyed their service.  24 years flying with American Airlines and I don’t think I have ever sent them any such correspondence.  

You Don't Just Get Peanuts - But a Selection & You Can Have 2
But even bigger surprises were in store for me when I checked in at Dar es Salaam airport for my flight to Kigali.  The check-in girl recognized my name from speaking to me on the phone, said a special hello and even was kinda amenable to upgrading me.  The Rwandaair planes were spanking new with great seats and they served a choice of nuts and free drinks, including a super good red wine. And this was on the 40 minute flight leg from Dar to Kilimanjaro.  From Kilimanjaro to Kigali, which is about 1 hour and 40 minutes, we got a delicious hot meal with even more drinks.  By the time we got into the super nice airport in Kigali, walked past the flower pots that lined the immigration aisles, heard all the beautiful French being spoken, and watched as the Rwandans scanned their fingers and passports to self-clear immigration, we thought we were in Europe somewhere. After collecting our bags, playing hide and seek with some of the stragglers, we boarded some pickup trucks courtesy of VSO Rwanda to head to our hotel.  We hesitantly threw our luggage into the open back of the trucks, but the welcome committee assured us that our bags would be safe and would not be stolen (definitely not an option in Dar).  We were greeted with fresh juice at the hotel, which had beautiful landscaped grounds and small but nice rooms.  Next it was then off to a group dinner to meet our Rwandan and Kenyan counterparts at Sole Luna Restaurant.  Here we feasted on a great Italian buffet in this really nice restaurant set on the edge of a hill, which made you feel as if you were in Italy. This place was growing on me really quickly – and it was not just because of all the red wine.
The Woodlands Hotel - Great People and Service
The next day (Saturday morning) we were told to stay put at the hotel, as it was Umuganda.  This is the mandatory community service day which runs from 8:00am to 11:00am on the last Saturday of each month.  By law, all able bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 are expected to participate in volunteer community work, which could range from clean-up campaigns to repairing a bridge damaged by flooding.  You are not allowed to be on the streets during this time, unless you are going to the airport or hospital, or have special permission.  The practice of Umuganda apparently goes back to colonial times, which got me thinking that is must be related somehow to the dying/almost dead Gayap practice in Trinidad.  But this takes it to another level, with even the President and politicians getting involved.  No wonder Kigali was so clean and organized.  This incidentally is also a function of the fact that street vending is also outlawed.  I was beginning to like this place even more.

It's Like Duty Free - Better than Advil for After Run Pains & Aches 
That afternoon, following a nice breakfast, a couple of us went for a short run close to the hotel.  After a few minutes, a funny smell wafted in the air, to which I thought, what on earth did Margaret and Liesbeth (my running colleagues) have for breakfast. I didn’t remember refried beans or dodgy boiled eggs being on the menu. They also thought the same and that I was the culprit.  Only for us to realize later on that we were running past a prison, where obviously water and soap were in short supply.  One (1) km or so into the run things got worse, as the heavens opened up and we got drenched.  Wet sneakers and a marathon scheduled for the next day is not a good combination, and the cool, damp conditions at the hotel was not going to get them dry in time.  We eventually used the hand blower in the public washroom at the hotel to dry the sneakers, which made for some awkward encounters every time someone entered to use the facilities.  By the way, the urinal basins in Rwanda are mounted high up on the walls because the people are all so tall.  Nicholas Sarkozy would be peeing on his feet every time unless, he brought his travelling foot box with him.  Although I tiptoed when using the one at the hotel, I still got my feet peed on, as the drainpipe below the basin was missing.  Oh well, I guess everything can't be all perfect in this country.  Also I guess I won’t be getting any foot fungi infections in a while.   
80% Pepper and 20% Vegetable Oil - Not for the Eyes
Later that day, after a nice lunch and coffee in town (Rwanda Estate coffee is amazing) we headed off to the stadium to pick up our registration pack.  I also encountered a first here.  If you were running the full marathon or the half, you actually had to undergo a medical examination before they registered you.  I think one of our volunteers discovered they were pregnant during their examination – or maybe that is just me being scandalous and "mauvais langue".  After getting our clean bills of health we headed off to a liquor store – we needed supplies for the after party on race day.  It is a running thing people.  You train hard, get healthy, run the race, and then you undo all the good health gains by getting thrashed for the next few days.  Well actually this might just be my thing.  The liquor store so was nice we did a mini photo shoot in there, loaded some bottles and boxed wine, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.  We had requested a special pre-race dinner buffet of fish and pasta and were expecting grilled fillets of fish and whole wheat pasta tossed with vegetables.  What we unfortunately ended up with was a lot of large scary fried fish heads and some plain spaghetti. Let’s just say something was "Lost in Translation" between the manager and the kitchen staff.  Thank god for the Rwandan Akabanga – the potent and flavourful chili oil (pili pili) that comes in an eye-dropper bottle.  It makes everything more palatable - I bought 10 in the supermarket to bring back home!

40 Year Old Marathon Virgin - My 1st Start at the Front
Sunday morning and it was race day.  After an early breakfast we found out that our bus driver was missing in action.  We thus had to hastily arrange a taxi for the early starters to get to the stadium on time, with the others (read: Venessa and her stop-for-a-coffee drinking 5K posse) coming by dala dala.  By the way, on Rwandan dala dalas, neither standing nor eating is allowed.  I wish this practice would come to Dar es Salaam.   This incident immediately gave me flashbacks of the Kilimanjaro marathon, where our bus was stuck in the mud and we had to dala dala it to the stadium.  But like the Kili marathon, we should have taken our time as the race start was delayed (TIA: This Is Africa), which gave us enough time to take some group pictures, and also for me to trip, fall and bruise my palms and knees, after peeing in some bushes outside the stadium.  I can be such a klutz sometimes. There were not many starters for the full marathon, so for the first time in 7 marathons, I would be starting close to the front with the elite runners.  If I thought the Eau de Prison smell the day before was a bit tough to stomach, there worse things to come.  Our course involved four (4) grueling laps around the city and back through the stadium track each time.  They don’t call this place “the land of a thousand hills” for nothing.  The stinging rain and gushing water towards the end also did not help.  Nor did seeing some of my colleagues who were doing the 5Km race, stopping at the coffee shop for a beverage and a smoke during their race.  

The 18-Year Old Girl that Helped Me Finish
The last lap was tortuous – so much so I wish I was back at the hotel chomping on those fish heads from the night before.  Thankfully, an 18 year old Rwandan girl ran next to me for the duration of the last lap, and we chatted in my bad French and Swahili.  I allowed her to finish ahead of me and wish I had seen her after to finish line to take a proper picture with her.  I ended up finishing in 93rd place in a pedestrian 4 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds. It was my worst time ever but it was my best placing ever so I was happy (mind you there were only about 125 runners that took part in the full marathon). I did beat my VSO boss again by about five minutes, securing me bragging rights for the rest of the trip.  After a massage and a warm beer, it was time for shower, some food and the after party at Erica and William’s house – a Canadian couple who are volunteering in Kigali.  It was a good lime, although the combination of red wine, white wine, shots of Smirnoff from a brown bag in the bus, and Amarula, did not agree with some people.  I had to eventually be the sober one to prevent some of my colleagues from soiling the clean streets of Kigali, and possibly ending up in the foul smelling prison I ran past the day before.   We did go for a nice restaurant for dinner afterwards.  However, many of the diners had no recollection of the great view, the super food, and warm service or about trying to sneak a 5 litre box of red wine into the restaurant.  Good times!

The Childrens' Exhibit Will Break Your Heart
The next day we headed off to the Genocide Memorial Centre which is excellent and a must see.  Although I am not sure that the word excellent is one you would want associated with any museum of this kind.  The museum is quite well done with numerous audio-visual presentations and exhibits.  It was quite an emotional experience, especially the children's exhibit and the massive concrete vaults where the remains of 250,000 persons are interred.  That very touching and reflective experience necessitated some retail therapy and lunch, so we then headed to one of the malls in the city centre.  On the drive there, I was again struck on how clean the streets were, with lots of beautifully manicured roundabouts, modern traffic lights, and nicely paved roads.  They even taped the plants to the beautifully terraced walls along the road so that they would grow properly and cover the walls. The mall was also very modern, but walking up and down the steps to the different levels were a bit challenging for those who ran the full and half marathons.  We did get some funny stares from the locals as I guess we kinda looked like we spent the previous night at Father O'Reilly's church quarters in Boston, on the choir boys' night off.

Kili and Kigali "Konquered" - Arusha Next 
A quiet-ish dinner followed that evening and then it was back to Dar the following day.  It was another fun and successful marathon run and we raised over US$7,500 to facilitate economic empowerment grants to disadvantaged women in Tanzania.  All energized and motivated by this effort, as soon as we got back to Dar, we started planning for our next race and fundraising effort.  This will be the Safari International Marathon in Arusha, Tanzania on September 9th.  We will be running this race in support of our Mobile Health Project, to improve maternal health in Pemba Island.  This island is part of Zanzibar and is one of the poorest regions in Tanzania.  You can visit my personal  Run for the World fundraising page to learn more about the dire health situation in Pemba and to also donate.  I know this is the third time I am badgering you for sponsorship this year but I can’t help it - there are so many worthy causes to run for in this country. That and the fact that there is also so much cheap good beer to drink after the race.  Altruism and volunteerism do need a good dose of inebriation now and then.  

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