Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Where's The Beef?

I used to have a t-shirt that said “where's the beef,” based off of the Wendy’s slogan. Thank goodness I became a vegetarian years ago because there’s no beef to be shown around these woods, and therefore I had very little, if any difficulty adjusting to the vegetarian diet in the Village. Inspired by many friends and family members inquiring about the food in Rwanda, I decided to keep a food journal for one week in order to exemplify my diet while here. After being here for nearly 3 months, I have found that there are only 2 foods I cannot stand eating. I tried both of them, and one I will tolerate if I am really hungry (Japanese BITTER eggplant, which was actually just served at lunch), but the other I just absolutely refuse to eat (cassava bread, which is not bread at all, but can be depicted as a lump of disgustingness). To bluntly describe it, cassava bread has the consistency of homemade play-do, minus the taste, with an added bonus – it smells like rotting feet. It really is that disgusting.

Now that I have discussed what I do not eat, it is time to enter into the world of what I do eat. Welcome to my world of food in Rwanda:

NOTE: If you are contemplating moving to the Village for a year and you don’t like beans and/or rice and/or repetition, this is probably not the best fit for you :)

Day 1:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge. The porridge is similar to cream of wheat, but a bit grainier, and it gives off the smell of burnt toast. Honestly, I really like it.
  • Lunch – cooked bananas, “salad” (green beans, coleslaw, cucumber), white rice, bean and carrot stew
  • Dinner – white potatoes with scallions and garlic, white rice, cassava greens and bean stew

Day 2:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and African Tea (known as Chai in the Western world).
  • Lunch –sweet potatoes with chives, hard boiled eggs, white rice, carrot and pea stew
  • Dinner –cooked bananas, white rice, sauerkraut stew

Day 3:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge.
  • Lunch – white potatoes, “salad,” white rice, eggplant/green bean/peanut sauce stew
  • Dinner – sweet potatoes , white rice, bean and cauliflower stew

Day 4:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge.
  • Lunch –cooked bananas, white rice, carrot and squash stew
  • Dinner –white “Irish” potatoes, white rice, bean and carrot stew

Day 5:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge.
  • Lunch –fried sweet potatoes (yummy!), white rice, cassava greens stew
  • Dinner –cooked bananas, white rice, bean stew

Day 6:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge.
  • Lunch – white “Irish” potatoes, green beans, white rice, bean and sauerkraut stew,
  • Dinner –cooked bananas, white rice, eggplant stew

Day 7:

  • Breakfast – an American “dinner roll” and porridge.
  • Lunch – cassava bread, white rice, bean stew
  • Dinner – sweet potatoes, white rice, carrot stew

It would be unfair to lead you to believe that I eat every meal in the dining hall. Breakfast begins at 6:15am and is far too early for me most days, so I generally opt to make oatmeal in my room, porridge in my kitchen, eat a maize cake from the local market, or have a honey and peanut butter sandwich on homemade challah, which I try to bake each week in the Village kitchen. (see photo to the left) I generally eat lunch in the dining hall every single day, and once or twice a week, I make pasta with fresh, homemade tomato sauce, avocados, spices, and occasionally an egg on top. All fresh ingredients are either purchased from the farm in the Village, or from the nearby local farmer’s market.

Just for your reference, breakfast is at 6:15am M-F, 7am S-S. Lunch is at 2pm M-F, 1pm S-S. Dinner is at 8pm M-F, 7pm S-S.

Even though snacks are not part of Rwandan culture, I am American and can not quite kick the habit. Some of my favorites include (aside from the snacks I brought from America):
  • Freshly roasted peanuts (see photo below of me roasting them myself!)
  • Tea biscuits with peanut butter
  • Maize cake (similar to corn bread) either plain, with peanut butter and/or with honey
  • Butterscotch candies
  • Amandazi (Rwandan fried dough) - plain, with peanut butter and/or with honey
  • Chapatti (Rwandan pita) – yes, with peanut butter, or plain
  • Mango
  • Pineapple
  • Sambussas – thin pastry shell filled with potatoes and spice (see photo below)
  • Avocado (with two brother’s seasoning from my mom’s grocery store)
  • Chocolate yogurt lollipops
  • A spoonful of peanut butter…my addiction hasn’t stopped just because I moved to Africa
  • Ice cream - believe it or not, there is only 1 store in all of Rwanda that makes its own ice cream - it is called Inzozi Nziza (Sweet Dreams) and is located in Butare. When I stopped there, I indulged in pineapple ice cream with fresh passion fruit topping...YUMMY!

Although many foods that I could or would buy in America are available here, a) there isn’t much variety to choose from (ie. Skippy peanut butter is the only American brand of peanut butter available) and b) imported products are EXTREMELY expensive (ie. Skippy peanut butter is $25 for a jar, cereal is over $10 a box, etc.). Some items that are disappointingly difficult or impossible to find are:

  • Dried fruit (although I just found raisins!)
  • Chocolate chips
  • Trail mix
  • Mixed nuts, or anything besides peanuts
  • A REAL salad, made with lettuce, not cabbage
  • Sweet corn
  • Mushrooms

Acquiring food is just different here. If I want to cook something myself, I either have to negotiate a fair price (as soon as a white person approaches a local vendor, the price instantly doubles) at a local market (see two market photos to the left), or search for the best price of a product at one of the grocery stores in Kigali and then transport the food 60km to the Village on a mini-bus packed with 19 passengers. Generally speaking, it’s just easier to go to the dining hall and eat whatever is being served that particular day. If nothing else, there is always white rice to eat. And although the Village food could use a little bit of spice and extra flavor, I know it isn’t an easy task to cook for 650 people at one seating, so I can't fault the cooks, and I can’t be too critical. If you are still curious about the diet here in Rwanda, why don’t you come visit and taste it for yourself! My first visitor arrives in 33 days!!!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Present time can be hard, but life unfolds as it will...

Emotions are a funny thing. In my previous place of employment, I was labeled as "emotional," and to many in that environment, that was deemed a bad thing. It was a battle I fought vehemently, insisting that to have emotions is a positive attribute, and without them, we just become machines, performing robotic functions, not caring about others, and not respecting the people who are intricately involved in the work we do. Emotions elicit passion, and without passion and inspiration, what is the point?

Emotions in Rwanda are different. They aren't deemed negative, but rather aren't acknowledged much at all. For a country with such a deep, dark history, for the most part emotions are kept at bay, and there are rarely open expressions of any extreme - anger, happiness, sadness, etc. Every once in a while I will even see a student quickly covering his/her mouth with a hand to disguise an unexpected smile. Tears are never shed out in the open, raised voices are not heard, and squeals of delight catch people off-guard. I have found that it isn't so much that people don't "feel," it is just that they process their feelings more inwardly than what I am accustomed to, and that has taken some adjustment on my part.

I have come to understand that each of us have a past which is filled with events that have unfolded in various ways, and those unique events bring about emotions in us that can, at times, catch us off-guard. Oftentimes I find that it isn't until later that I uncover the truth behind the emotions that have built up inside me, and realize that it is my history that has shaped me and that makes me react to situations and circumstances in various ways. We are not robots, and we are not meant to be robots, so I struggle with environments that are emotionless, and I am intrigued by the typical Rwandan response of "I'm fine" when asked how they are doing. In fact in many English-Kinyarwanda dictionaries, the basic conversational exchange that is taught goes as follows:
  • Good Morning - Mwaramutse
  • How Are You - Amakuru
  • I'm Fine - Ni Meza
There is rarely another response that is heard or expressed, other than, "I'm fine."

Last weekend one of my friends in the Village, a fellow American, received horrific news that her father had suddenly and unexpectedly fallen gravely ill. He passed away this past Monday, nearly 24 hours after she arrived back in the States to say goodbye. I can not describe the emotions that I felt when I heard the news and when I saw her in the airport to bid her farewell. Not only was I sickened for her and her family, but my mind and memories immediately jumped back to the morning when I received a similar phone call about my brother, and in an instant the gut-wrenching, hollow pain in the pit of my stomach returned. The rush of emotions that have been surfacing within me since last weekend have been a bit unexpected and startling. I understand that my feelings are not irrational or incorrect, but they are different on so many levels from what other people around me feel, and it is impossible for anyone to understand or relate to what is going on within me. I am surrounded each day by people in the Village who harbor such sadness, but with such limited outward expression of emotion, it is not possible to "heal" in an open way. That realization and feeling of isolation have been my greatest challenges this week.

Ironically enough, the evening before my friend's father's accident, I had a conversation with another friend about untimely death and trying to process the pain and seemingly lack of understanding that I have regarding a life being cut so short. Most people don't know that after my brother's death, I looked into going to India for a bit to spend time meditating at an Ashram. As you know by now, I ended up in Rwanda, but in a roundabout way, a message from an Ashram reached me. During the above-mentioned conversation, my friend told me a story that he learned while living at an Ashram several years ago. He told me about a talented artist who lived at the Ashram. She painted incredibly intricate paintings and once they were finished, she would place them in a body of water and watch as they disappeared out of sight forever. Someone asked her how she could destroy such works of art after spending so many hours creating them. She explained that what is important is to memorialize not the piece of art itself, but rather how it made you feel while you were creating it, and how it made you feel while you spent time with it. THAT feeling will stay alive and with you forever, living in your mind and in your heart.

Looking back on being called "emotional" and being looked down upon for having that trait, I have to say that I have now learned to put aside judgments like those which prevented me for so long from looking inward and understanding my own individualistic way of understanding myself and the world around me. I have emerged as someone who is not ashamed to feel, who can both outwardly express and inwardly process my feelings, without feeling the need to validate or legitimize them. My life has provided me with events, interactions and experiences which have made me a unique individual. How each of us responds to the world and its inner workings is a result of our individual histories. My emotional complexity is something to be valued, and for all those naysayers out there who beg to differ with that opinion, well, I just look at them as being simplistic and dense, and are far too fearful to examine the inner workings of who they really are and why they are that way. Having emotions, whether internal ones like the Rwandans, or more raw emotions like I have is something to be valued, as it makes us complete
human versions of our true selves.
Dorea, I miss you more than words can express...sending you hugs from Rwanda xoxo