Sunday, January 31, 2010

Give me water...

The rainy season is not yet upon us here.  Any time now, they say...  In the meantime, it has been hot (upper 80's) and dry.

Unlike in America, most other people in the world do not walk down the street clutching a Super-Grande-Big Gulp.  They sip a bit of soda or coffee here and there socially, always sitting down in a civilized manner.  Imbibing liquid here seems to be reserved for meals and socializing. There are not cooled water fountains in the hallways.  (It's not like you could drink the water.) You do not get coffee to go.  If you're thirsty, you suck it up until you get home or meet with your buddies.   This is a change for me.  I am a two-fisted Large-Coffee-To-Go drinker, and have been all my adult days.

The bottom line is that at the end of the day, after I have climbed the four flights of stairs to my office multiple times, taught a three-hour lecture, worked with students who seem to need a minimum of two hours of me at a time, I'm hot, tired, and very, very thirsty.  (I can hear the sound of a thousand World's Smallest Violins coming from all you frozen New Englanders!)  Bill is in the same state.  We have become acutely aware of our need for something cold, wet, and sweet at these times: cold sugar water.   While Bill prefers pineapple juice, I crave Cokes.   Cold Cokes.  In glass bottles, with a straw.  Heaven.  (Si, Laurie?)

Bill and I have decided that we remind us of Edgar from Men in Black:
Now at the end of the day, before the "how was your day" pleasantries, we simply look at each other and say "Give me water"  and then we go see if we can find some.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Adventures in Ophthalmology

Bill here.  I thought I’d write about my recent adventures in ophthalmology.  First, the quick medical facts: a couple of days ago I had a vitreous hemorrhage associated with posterior vitreous detachment in my right eye.  In other words, a blood vessel in my eye broke and the vision in my right eye went blurry.  It appears, though, that the retina is OK.  Assuming this is the whole story, it means I’ll have some blurriness in that eye for some weeks but it will eventually get back to normal.  I can live with that. 

Of course, when the blurriness began I had no clue what was going on.  The clues came from Google and visits to two doctors in Kigali.  The second doctor, whom I saw Tuesday morning at the King Faisal Hospital, used ultrasound to find the source of the hemorrhage.  The exam and consultation cost a total of Rwf 20,000, less than $40.  But the more interesting story is my visit Monday to the Kigali Eye Clinic, just a half-hour’s walk from where we’re staying. 

I called the clinic around 9:15 in the morning and asked if I could have an eye exam sometime that day.  The receptionist said I should come in between 9:00 and 10:00.  So I hurried over, and found that they operate on a first-come, first-served basis.  There were several people ahead of me, so it was about an hour’s wait, not bad for not having an appointment.  I sat down in the very pleasant waiting room—a wall of glass and an open sliding glass door looked out on a garden full of flowers. 

I was busy using the flowers to compare the vision in my two eyes, when a family with three young boys sat down in the chairs on both sides of me.  At first the boys were occupied looking at pictures in the magazines, and possibly reading some of the French, and chatting occasionally in Kinyarwanda.  At some point the dad brought me into the conversation by pointing to a picture of Barack Obama, and I said yes, I’m from the USA.  He then pointed to various other dignitaries in the magazine, and the youngest boy, maybe six years old, correctly identified, by country, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel.  (He used the English words for the countries—those were the only English words I heard in the waiting room.)  The kids also recognized Michelle Obama on another page.  Then the dad came across a photo of a certain French writer named Philippe Delerm, with a caption in French about his recent work.  He showed the page to the kids and said something in Kinyarwanda, and they all started laughing.  I wondered how these kids, who were not speaking any French, knew anything about Philippe Delerm.  After a few minutes, I finally figured out that they all thought Philippe Delerm looked exactly like me.  The dad was apparently saying something like, “See this guy in the magazine?  He’s sitting next to you!”  (For the record, Philippe Delerm’s beard is totally gray, not merely graying.)  Once I got the joke I laughed too.

Then they got to exploring the whole muzungu thing in more depth.  (“Muzungu” means “white person.”)  The dad pointed out to the kids that I had hair on my arms—Rwandans have none.  They all had to feel the hair.  Another dad with a much younger boy in his arms wandered over from across the waiting room just to show his son what a muzungu looked like.  This was the scene when the doctor called me in. 

Her office was much like the one I go to in Berkshire County, with similar, though less fancy equipment.  She did a very thorough exam that cost me less than $20.  And she called the doctor at the hospital to set up the ultrasound exam.  By the time I was finished—there was a half-hour period of waiting in a separate, dark room, while my pupils were dilating—the family I had been sitting with had apparently seen the doctor and had disappeared.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the New

Workers take down an old army barrack
in the shadow of the new KIST laboratories.

The KIST campus is large and sprawling; there are but ten or so buildings on about 75 acres. There is room for many more buildings, and that is the plan.   The land used to be the main government army base, and there are still dilapidated barracks dotted about the land.  There has been slow, systematic tearing down of these buildings.  Work crews work seven days a week to take down each wall with sledgehammers and carry the bricks away in wheelbarrows.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The KIST Classroom

KIST Science Buildings  

I taught my first class yesterday afternoon, and all things considered, it went well.  Most students showed up, and they are very, very sweet and helpful.  I showed up with my computer and projector, hoping to plug in and go, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  First of all, there are no screens for projectors, apparently not anywhere on campus.  There are also no extension cords that I know of.  The students were great in helping me set up—they put a table near the one outlet in the room (that holds 100 people), and I projected the slides up onto a wall.  With the exception of a 5-minute power outage, we did okay.  I would say that I will resort to chalk next week, but there is not a proper board in the room.  (They did find a portable board that they could rest on chairs and lean against the wall, but the sight-lines and lighting in the room are such that it's very difficult for the students to see it.)  Next week, I'll bring both chalk and projector and see what happens.

I do not know how these students manage to learn, but they do.  All their courses are in English, taught by professors who do not know Kinyarwanda.   (None of the current physics faculty is Rwandan.)   A few of the students are fluent in French, but none of them are fluent enough in English to be comfortable with a lecture in English.  It’s Kinyarwanda that they know.  I spoke at what I considered a snail’s pace, and it was too fast for them.  After a few hours, we were all fried.  

My first reaction to the classroom situation is, of course, frustration with the Powers That Be.  Why build huge new buildings and neglect to put in enough chalkboards and enough outlets?  Why can't I find an extension cord? Where are the library books?  The answer, as I think I understand it, is due to the fact that there is one central budget, subject to what the government can provide, and there is not enough to around.  One positive, key feature of the current budget is that all students go to KIST for free.  100% of their costs are paid for by the Rwandan government.  If I were a government official, eager to jump start a technological economy, I might do similarly.  "Put the money you can into the infrastructure (the buildings) and the students, and add the other things in as you can," I can imagine them saying.  Maybe. So many projects and initiatives at once are happening at KIST and in Rwanda, it's dizzying.  Chalkboards get forgotten.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Wootterses Have Landed

We arrived in Kigali last Thursday night safe, sound, and with all our baggage.  After a busy few days settling in, we are now taking our time to get to know Kigali.  The center of the city is about a mile down the road, and it's a very pleasant walk.  As with most large cities in developing countries, everyone wants to sell you something, and you take your life in your hands every time you cross a street in the city's center.

We have a room in a guest house at KIST.  It's a convenient 2-minute walk to the science building. Our room is small, but we have a veranda on which we spend most of our time, both working and free.  The picture you see above is sunrise seen from there.  The house itself is large and currently has four other residents.  Some are here for only a week, some will be here for another year.  They are very nice people and from all over the place.

There are so many sights and sounds I could share with you, but you'd go on the same sensory overload I have.  I will share one of my favorites, though.  Our guest house is at the south end of the rather extensive KIST campus.  On the southeast side, there is an Anglican church which has stuff going on all the time.  There has not been a night when music has not been pouring out of its windows.  On the southwest side there is a mosque which, every evening around 6:15 broadcasts a call to prayer.  The call is usually instrumental, and it is always haunting and beautiful.  On a few evenings, there has been simultaneous music from both church and mosque.  The two sounds blended to make a different creation that I found deeply moving.

Classes started today, and I had been told that my first class would be 8 a.m. this morning.  When I showed up, I found out that the class had been moved to tomorrow at 8 a.m.  Life is what happens while you were making other plans.