The River Nile, My New House, and Kwibuka

I couldn’t think of a nice, catchy title. I know, it sucks. It reads like the title of some really dry research article: more confusing than descriptive and yawn-inducing. Sorry. Since my last post, a lot has happened. A LOT. For starters, I spent another week in Uganda, trying not to melt (I’m still somewhat intact). We did lots of cool stuff, from meeting with the Chief of the Patiko clan of the Acholi People, to visiting a Patiko village, to riding a ferry down the Nile River to see Murchison Falls, and then took a game drive to see all sorts of cool wildlife in the Murchison Falls National Park.

Me being a dweeb at Murchison Falls. Photo credit: Akvile

Me being awkward with Murchison Falls in the background. Photo credit: friend and now roommate! Akvile

I saw lions. In the wild. Including two cubs. Also giraffes running with their awkwardly graceful, spindly legs. And I came REALLY close to an elephant and a crocodile.

UGH ELEPHANTS ARE SO COOL Photo Credit: friend and roommate Akvile

UGH ELEPHANTS ARE SO COOL Photo Credit: Akvile again.

Upon our return home after a grueling journey (those bumpy Uganda highways, which are mostly dirt once you get away from major cities like Kampala, are not kind to your body), we all stayed with our home stay families for another two weeks. My last night at home, my family and I (excluding my host dad) went out to dinner–something we had never done in the nearly two months I’ve lived there. It was a real treat–South African wine, pizza, and hamburgers. My sweet host mom, “Mama Grace,” who had just treated me to my nice meal, went outside after dinner to the children’s play area and started swinging on the swing set. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Mama Grace is too cute for words While I will miss my family, I am super excited to be living in a new house with two of my fellow SIT students! For the next month we will be sharing a small house in Kimihurura, a really cool section of Kigali. Many expats live in the area, and it’s full of everything us Americans could ever want–the (arguably) coolest bar/cafe/club in Kigali, other bars and cafes and clubs, a bowling alley, restaurants, even a smoothie shop. Many of these cool places are within walking distance, but we are also only twenty minutes or less by bus ride to Mumuji, or downtown. (Usually, if I can get somewhere in Kigali via public transportation in under an hour, I consider it a miracle). We have a cute little backyard with a trampoline (although if we jumped on it it’d probably break) and a pretty garden, a not-half-bad view of the city, plus some corn (we don’t know why there’s corn growing in our yard, either). We have someone who both guards AND cleans our house named Cristoph. Move-in day was rough, however. One of the toilets was missing its seat. The other toilet didn’t work. Locks had to be switched on doors so we could actually lock our front door. We have been engaged in an all-out assault against ants in the kitchen (so far, the only casualty we’ve suffered is a loaf of bread). We went to go cook dinner and there was no gas for the stove. One of the bed frames broke when my friend sat on it the bed. Luckily, everything but the ant problem has been fixed (and we are armed for the ant problem with some hand sanitizer and vinegar), although the one toilet that has been fixed randomly makes noises like it’s possessed. It’s a charming house, I promise. Come stop by (and maybe tell our toilet to stop making strange thumps in the night?) Aside from that, yesterday was the beginning of Kwibuka in Rwanda. “Kwibuka” is a Kinyarwanda word for “to remember,” and it signifies the commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsis. Yesterday, essentially all of Kigali shut down. No businesses were open. Normally there’s a hum of activity around our house considering we are in close proximity to many busy places, but there was hardly a sound. It didn’t feel absurdly sad or distressing. It just felt solemn and subdued–and Kigali is not a solemn or subdued city. It’s been twenty-one years since the Rwandan Genocide. The commemoration of it will continue for a full week. On Sunday, there is a Walk to Remember I am hoping to join some Rwandan friends in. You can learn more about this year’s commemoration and the Rwandan Genocide by visiting 

The Great Muzungu Migration: An Update from Uganda

I know, I’m way overdue for a post–like, REALLY overdue. But I’ve been so busy these past few weeks here, and traveling a lot, and as my luck would have it, my wifi modem has quit working at my home stay, excepting rate occasions when the little light on the modem changes from green to bright blue for five minutes at a time, signaling a connection. Insert halfhearted allusion to Gatsby’s green light here.

At any rate, home stay life is still pretty good, freezing bucket showers and all. Meals are pretty similar–usually rice  and/or pasta, potatoes of some sort, beans, sometimes fruit (Japanese plums and passion fruit make me want to weep with joy), occasionally a treat of cake or popcorn after dinner, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes very questionable meat. (Hey, we all accidentally turn our meat to charcoal from time to time, right? No? Okay.) I fall asleep over readings and/or my laptop pretty consistently as I wait in vain for the wifi to connect, inevitably waking up disoriented and tangled in my mosquito net. My host brother has come home and started in a new school for reasons I will not disclose here. As friendly as he is, and as helpful, he’s also like a real life teenage brother in some ways and kind of drives me up the wall. 

Apart from that, the program has been keeping us busy with site visits and lectures, and most recently, our long journey to Gulu Town, Uganda! We were quite a sight to see to the Ugandan locals I’m sure, crowded together on a bus, a bunch of white muzungus traveling in a pack everywhere we went, obnoxiously loud in our excitement to see the tourist trap that is the demarcation of the equator.

Gulu Town is in northern Uganda, in the heart of the region that for many years suffered at the hands of the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was and still is under the leadership of Joseph Kony. This conflict is the main topic of our studies here, as well as the displacement and suffering of the Acholi people. On the way here we stopped in Mbarara, Uganda to speak with refugees from Rwanda, as well as Kampala. 

We were only in the capital for one night and confined to the hotel, but the morning we left some of us woke up to swim at sunrise. There’s nothing quite like stepping back from yourself to tell yourself, REALLY tell yourself, that you are swimming while the sun rises over Kampala, thousands of miles from home. It’s exhilarating. 

I’m currently typing this in a muzungu hot spot in tiny Gulu, a coffee shop called The Coffee Hut with awesome coffee (and admittedly, we camp here for the free wifi too). So far here we’ve had some great lecturers, including an Acholi chief and the chairman of Gulu District. I’m learning so much and meeting so many great people, and Gulu Town has some great craft stores with some beautiful handiwork. 

Admittedly, not really a fan of the 98 degree weather without a/c.

Ugandan countryside just off Gulu Highway

sunset over Gulu Town

Memorializing at Murambi

Hello everyone. I know I’m falling behind on these blog posts, so I plan to try to make it up by publishing another post this weekend (hopefully). Last week, we traveled to Huye (formerly known as Butare), in the Southern Province of Rwanda, and stayed with some nuns. They were incredibly sweet, and best of all, my roommates’ and I’s bathroom had HOT, AND ALWAYS RUNNING, WATER. I’ve become used to taking cold bucket showers almost every day, so this was a treat. (And at my home stay when the shower is working, I get really excited, even if the water is freezing).

Of course, before we could even go to the place we were staying on Monday, we made a stop along the way at Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, and this visit is what I will focus on in this post. Nearly two weeks after going there, I am still speechless and incapable of describing the experience of going there. The Centre was originally a technical school, but during the Rwandan Genocide it was turned into a safe haven for about 65,000 Tutsis guarded by French soldiers. Supposedly. On April 21, after futile attempts to protect themselves since the French had fled, about 45,000 Tutsis were murdered. Almost all of the other 20,000 were killed as they tried to flee Murambi.

The tour guide was not available that day, but a man who worked at the memorial offered to lead us through all the sections of the memorial, and one of the SIT staff had to translate into English what few words the man spoke. The first part of the memorial is set up like a museum, full of facts and figures and pictures, but the power was out. So when we reached a hall full of pictures of Murambi’s victims, no light entered because there were no windows. I used my Rwandan phone’s wimpy flashlight to try and see some of the inscriptions on the wall. There were bats in those two rooms, and others and I couldn’t help but chuckle at nearly getting dive-bombed. So far, simple enough to handle.

The following description of Murambi is slightly graphic. 

We walked over, on a sidewalk lined by immaculately-trimmed hedges and a few small wildflowers, to classrooms that were available for viewing. And although we had all been warned about these rooms’ contents, nothing could have prepared us for actually seeing them. In about fourteen rooms were half-mummified skeletons preserved in limestone, lined up and nearly piled on top of each other thanks to their sheer numbers. However precisely they were preserved made them reek. They were frozen in the positions they died in, fearful and sometimes clutching on to other skeletons, many of them obviously babies and children. Some skulls still had patches of grayed hair clinging desperately, others were smashed or impaled.

Meanwhile, children just outside the fence guarding Murambi waved excitedly to us mzungus, trying to get our attention with shouts. They were running and playing and tumbling in the dirt while the sun shown down on their little faces and illuminated the surrounding hills.  Although at the other memorial sights it was helpful to watch children playing outside the gates, here it was almost disturbing. I gave one half-hearted wave. I walked into room after room, worried I would accidentally touch a skeleton since they were crowding so close to the walkways in the rooms. I wondered how parents raised children next to so many ghosts.

The final part of the memorial site were mass graves, marked only by signs, often with descriptors like “here lies approximately amount of people. The French tried to hide the bodies by filling the graves with dirt and turning them into volleyball courts.” One of the mass graves was still a pit, although it had long since been overgrown with grass and some little wildflowers. Trash had fallen into it.

Later that evening someone remarked, “That trash… that’s what the French and Interahamwe troops considered all those people to be, just trash to throw away and put out of sight.”

A Guide to Embarrassing Yourself in Kigali & Other, More Serious Matters

  1. Get your foot caught in the automatic bus door.
  2. Shout “hagarara!” (the Kinyarwanda word for “stop”) in your terrible accent while on the bus. Listen in dismay as a woman explains to you that the bus you’re on does not stop at that stop.
  3. Learn that if you want the bus drivers to stop, there’s actually a different word you should be using for “stop the bus” (which I’ve already forgotten).
  4. Respond with the wrong phrase to the greeting “Amakuro” (what’s the news/how are you?) It should be “nimeza” (I’m fine). Instead, reply with “wiriweho” (goodbye).
  5. Get on the wrong bus.
  6. Get in the wrong line for the bus at Remera taxi park. Wait until a kind stranger, who overheard where you were going, come grab you to put you in the correct line as though you are a wandering child.
  7. Misunderstand someone’s French completely. You’ve only been studying French for nearly 3 years.
  8. Fail to find the correct bus stop and wander aimlessly until a nice lady walks you there.
  9. Chew on passion fruit seeds the first time you try it. Proceed to be laughed at my your host family, as the youngest sister (10) instructs you, an adult, on how to eat the fruit. (Hint: it doesn’t involve chewing on seeds).
  10. Forget someone’s name who you’ve met once before. Get an offended “I’ve already told you that!” (Sorry, Olivia).

To sum up my time in Rwanda (which is entirely impossible, but I’ll pretend it’s not), I’m eating a lot of yummy organic fruit (bananas and avocados and passion fruit ALL THE TIME), studying Kinyarwanda, bonding with my wonderful host family, sweating like a pig (when is the rainy season again?), and of course, facing difficult questions about the nature of humanity and our capacity to commit atrocities such as genocide. This final part became particularly salient last week when we visited three different genocide memorials in one day, one in Kigali and two churches in Ntarama.

I’m not even sure where to start about this past week here in Kigali. This city’s people are lovely. Rwandans really are absurdly friendly and helpful overall, but please don’t take me saying that as a romanticization of the rest of Africa’s peoples. I am now settled in with my new home stay family and have begun bonding with my two host sisters, Cadette and Yvette (10 and 15) over Nickelodeon and ice cream, and am learning to communicate with my host dad and mom, who know very little English. I have yet to meet my host brother (16) because he is off at boarding school.

If you haven’t guessed from my little how-to guide, the bus system here is very confusing. There are taxi parks, i.e. bus parks, where you’re wandering around trying to find your bus by asking people “Kacyiru?” or “Mumuji?” (my most common destinations) while at the same time avoiding being run over by any of the dozens of buses. It also took a few bus trips to learn that buses at these taxi parks don’t actually leave the taxi parks until they are almost overflowing with people, so you may be sitting on a bus at a taxi park for a good 40 minutes before enough people board.  What even are “maps” and “bus schedules” anyway?

That all being said, I’m loving my time here so far and befriending strangers on the bus (although god am I craving a hamburger right now). Below is a picture of a view from near the SIT center where we are studying in Kigali. It’s impossible to capture all of the beauty of this land of a thousand hills, but I tried.

view from sit

The last paragraph is briefly about my time at the memorial sites. If you would like a much more thorough discussion of the genocide and the memorial visits, please contact me privately. 

It’s one thing to read about a genocide. It’s another thing to stay in a country who suffered genocide only twenty years ago. It’s something else entirely to face shattered skulls and bundles of clothes collecting dust which are close enough to touch, to see the darkened stains of blood on a church schoolroom wall. And the strangest thing of all is no matter how much of the leftover destruction you see, no matter how many skulls you stare at, no matter how many books you read, no matter how much you learn  you still can’t quite imagine the suffering, you can’t conceive how people committed these atrocious acts, nor understand how so many people have found it in their hearts to forgive.

I leave you with a quote from Jacques Derrida, who presents an interesting take on pure forgiveness as unconditional. I had to read an essay of his on forgiveness about a year ago for a class, and it has stuck with me. Is pure forgiveness possible? is impure, “political” forgiveness adequate to heal a society? And what is the exact relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation?

Yet despite all the confusions which reduce forgiveness to amnesty or to amnesia, to acquittal or prescription, to the work of mourning or some political therapy of reconciliation, in short to some historical ecology, it must never be forgotten, nevertheless, that all of that refers to a certain idea of pure and unconditional forgiveness, without which this discourse would not have the least meaning. What complicates the question of ‘meaning’ is again what I suggested a moment ago: pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning’, no finality, even no intelligibility.

-from On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness

Muraho, Kigali!


I don’t even know where to start. So much has happened already and I haven’t even moved in with my homestay family yet! I guess I’ll start with the all the nonsense that happened in Amsterdam.

I arrived at the Schiphol airport at about 5 am Amsterdam time. Exhausted but unable to find a good place to nap in the terminal, I waited and met up with another couple of people who were on the same flight as me into Kigali. We wandered around all the shops and discovered that the Dutch really like their clogs, cows, and cheese, and prefer that their liquor and chocolates come in containers that are 5 times bigger than what you need. I saw a bottle of vodka that was probably half my body weight, which is kind of amazing.

But no good trip is complete without a massive delay, so we waited a solid two hours on the plane to take off only to discover that they could not fix their computer problem. After going through security again and loading up onto another plane (almost 5 hours behind schedule), we began the flight to Kigali.

I hardly ever sleep on planes, even if I’m traveling very far. And I’m glad I didn’t pass out during this flight until much later, because I got to witness the most spectacular sunset over the Sahara desert. It was like a painting, everything windswept and purples and blues blending together over sand dunes and rock formations to create a sea of color. My camera couldn’t capture it, although I tried:


Since I arrived in Kigali after midnight, I didn’t get to really see the city until I woke up the next morning in a hostel and stepped outside to go to breakfast. The hostel we are staying at temporarily is on a slope, fairly far up a hill, as most buildings are, and stretched out before me were roads and cars and buildings dotting the hillsides. The whole study abroad group was in awe when they saw the view. One guy literally jumped for joy and exclaimed how beautiful it was. This place leaves you dumbfounded with its vibrancy–the people, their clothes, the speaking of three different languages, the plants, the streets… the list goes on. What is probably the most amazing thing is the amount of greenery in Kigali. It’s a sizable city of about a million people, but it is sprawled out over who knows how many hills and filled with things that are growing and green and full of life. I’ve never seen so much wild vegetation in a city, where grass and trees and flowers often spring up in random patches and (although there are certainly many places where it is clear that the grass is mowed and the bushes trimmed and the flowers planted). And (almost) everyone is so friendly.

I now own a $10 cell phone and a little stick to get wifi on my laptop whenever I want (you know, assuming the wifi is cooperating, and typically at a speed resembling dial-up, but it’s Internet!!!). Our group made quite a scene at the store in the mall at the UTC (it’s essentially like a mall-type area in the heart of downtown Kigali, which is referred to as mumuji) as the 9 of us Americans talked with a poor man behind the counter for about an hour trying to buy ourselves sim cards and cell phones and wifi. As if we didn’t attract enough attention already.

Today we were required to go in groups and find out information about certain services, and my group was in charge of finding out information about banks and exchanging currency, which was pretty simple in and of itself since we had visited a forex bureaux just two days ago. Additionally, any Rwandan who speaks a lick of English will at least point you in the right direction or point to someone who does know English if you are lost. Some people, like a kind man we met today, will actually walk you to your destination if you have a name for that destination. But the bus system is uh, less simple, shall we say.

You see, none of the buses are labeled with what route they take or where they are going. There is no map of the bus routes. Nor is there a schedule. You just kind of have to walk until you see a bunch of buses hanging around the same area and ask all the bus drivers if they are going to where you need to be. Which assumes you know where you’re going (luckily, we knew the names of where we needed to be, even if we had no idea how to get there). You’re screwed if you don’t know the names. We walked from bus to bus on the way back from the UTC, peering in the driver’s side window of each, asking in our terrible accents, “Kicyru? Kicyru?” Since there’s no schedule, the buses do not leave their stops until they are completely full, which means when we tried to get back to the SIT study abroad center, we sat on an immobile bus for nearly 40 minutes. But that’s okay–time is slowed down in Rwanda anyways, and the leisurely pace of life here, although utterly foreign, is actually kind of lovely.

Well, it’s almost time for dinner with the group at restaurant just down the dirt road from the hostel, and I’m hoping we will run into the children who live nearby again. They like to wave and give us hugs and shake our hands, and sometimes tell us “Hello!” in excited voices, obviously proud of their English. It’s adorable and heart-warming, and now I actually know how to say hello to them back in Kinyarwanda: muraho! Muraho, everyone! Muraho, Rwanda!

Don’t Cry Over Spilt Wine (Or Do)

So today marks the day I begin traveling to Rwanda for my semester abroad. Up until last night, I was taking everything pretty well. I have definitely been frustrated these past several weeks at certain times as I prepared to go live in Rwanda for a few months (What do you MEAN I can’t get this document notarized? Where the hell is my student ID? What do you mean you have my doctor’s note but my doctor didn’t sign it? Mom no I do not need a vest.) But all of this wasn’t anything I couldn’t take in stride, relatively speaking.

And then last night it hit me. I was growing increasingly panicked during the day about unimportant details, such as, where are the twizzlers? Like “I need those in my carryon, in this precise compartment, ohmygodgetittogetherguys” kind of panicky. (On second thought, twizzlers are pretty important. But I digress.) I was getting ready to have a full on meltdown. And eventually I did, in typical Lauren fashion, by bursting into tears after spilling chardonnay at home–you know, for the second time in twenty minutes. This was my first and only glass of the evening, so yes, I’m really just that clumsy. I embarrass myself too often.

On the bright side, I’m feeling much better today (even though I look like death from the lack of sleep), and that probably has something to do with the fact that I just ate a 12-inch pizza by myself here at the JFK airport. I’m also currently wearing a sweater around my waist like a mom because I have no shame. And I’m about to go buy myself a sudoku book. Traveling is so glamorous.

But enough about that. I’m honestly really excited to be studying abroad in Rwanda. It’s such a unique opportunity to be able to study abroad in a place where most people wouldn’t even consider studying, and on top of it all, to be able to study in the country that almost perfectly aligns with my personal interests, my areas of study for my major, and my undergraduate research. Sometimes, the universe works in strange ways and things start falling into place. (Except for that wine I spilled, that just fell into my lap).

Next time I post on this blog, I’ll be in Rwanda! So get excited.

12 Days To Takeoff

Hello everyone!

I’m departing for Rwanda in exactly 12 days, and will be in country in 13. And I am SUPER excited. I know, every study abroad blog you’re keeping track of right now is full of excited students. Have patience with us. But really, I’m anxious to get going and escape this dreary winter weather for the land of eternal spring weather wonderfulness. I literally look at my weather app on my phone to compare the weather here and the weather in Kigali every few days and sigh in envy. I don’t know why I torture myself that way–the temperature there is always either in the mid-seventies or low eighties (Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, I’m having a difficult time convincing myself to go outside because it’s 37 out.

Someone who is from the north is currently rolling their eyes at me whining about above freezing temperatures. I’m not sorry. I’m cold.

To get this blog rolling, here are some FAQs to give you the 411 on what I’m doing this spring:

  • What are you studying in Rwanda?
    • The program title is Post-Genocide Reconciliation and Peacebuilding. So in short, we are studying the 1994 genocide and peacebuilding efforts since then.
  • What language do they speak?
    •  Rwanda’s 3 official languages are: English, French, and Kinyarwanda. I will be studying Kinyarwanda while I’m there.
  • Where is Rwanda? 


  • What exactly are you doing there?
    • Taking classes and, during the last 4 weeks, an independent research project. The classes aren’t through a local university, they’re through the study abroad program itself. It’s not a very traditional study abroad set up. We are going to travel a lot to talk with people and the day to day schedule will change more often than not.
  • Can you send me postcards, and can I Skype/text/call/WhatsApp you?
    • You can’t text or call me, and you probably can’t ever Skype me. I probably won’t send you postcards while I’m in Rwanda because it’s hella expensive to mail anything, but if you really want a postcard, let me know and the least I can do is bring one back for you! :) I won’t have fast enough Internet connection for Skype calls. I won’t have my handy dandy smartphone while I’m there, so if I get WhatsApp it’ll be for my laptop and you’d probably have better luck with another route of communication anyways. If you need me or want to say hi, please contact me through Facebook, my school email if you know it, or carrier pigeon.