The Sugar King of Rwanda

by Zora O'Neill on April 21, 2014

Before we leave Rwanda, and while we’re still on the subject of material culture, let me just mention how nice it is that you can get intensely gingery tea with milk pretty much anywhere there.

For instance, at the edge of a national park:


Please note Heineken umbrella, and waiter in Heineken shirt. On the edge of Nyungwe Forest, about a thousand square kilometers of wilderness. Just the drive up to this entrance gate, and the grassy lawn, was a couple of hours of winding-through-nothing.

This bridge was why we went. But I was too terrified to take a photo from the middle of it.

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To give you an idea of the scope of things:

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(Yes, that’s an earthworm.)

Anyway, after you’ve hiked out to the wobbly cable bridge, and you’ve survived crossing it, by breathing deep, clutching the wires and chanting “science, science, science” all the way across (because it constantly feels as if it’s going to flip over, but of course, physically, it cannot), well, then you want some restorative “African tea,” as that ginger-milk-tea mix is called.

Everywhere in Rwanda, when you order tea, you get your own giant thermos of it, which is very nice. You also get a large bowl of sugar. And, here on the edge of the forest, we got…the Sugar King!


When our Heineken-shirted waiter brought him over on a tray, Peter and I both started pointing and laughing and taking a million pictures. Which no one really understood.

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Regular readers of this blog may know, but this is because we have a particularly characterful sugar dispenser, Sugar Duck.

The Sugar King of Rwanda is flanked at all times by his loyal bodyguards. They are especially good at silencing the crowds when the Sugar King issues his royal proclamations.


Peter was a most loyal subject, obeying (under the enforcing glare of a bodyguard) the ruler’s decree that every cup of African tea should have not one scoop of sugar, and not two scoops…but three!


I doubt Sugar Duck even knows that his true overlord holds court on the edge of the Nyungwe Forest. He may be hurt at first by Peter’s defection, but I think he’ll understand in the end. If he wants to make a pilgrimage there, to pay his respects, we’ll take him. We might even go hiking again.

(The cable bridge is very cool! We saw tiny little sunbirds and great blue turacos. There are several other, longer day hikes you can take from this entrance gate, where you might see some other wildlife–aside from earthworms and anthropomorphized sugar bowls. If you go, you have to leave Butare at dawn, as the hikes leave at scheduled times in the mid-morning.)

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Nyamirambo Women’s Centre Tour

by Zora O'Neill on April 14, 2014

There’s a great little organization in Kigali, the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre. It’s a work co-op and educational group, teaching women job skills. They run a fun walking tour around their neighborhood, which ends with lunch–which happened to be some of the best food we had in Rwanda.

I highly recommend this! To tantalize you, here are some pics.

Nyamirambo is known as the Muslim part of town, though it’s really quite mixed.

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It’s also known as the place to get your car detailed, and, if you’re a moto-taxi driver, where to get your regulation green helmets.

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First we visited the market. Men pounding things that women should be pounding: always funny.

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Also in the market, a crew of ladies was ready for all our sewing needs. If only I’d brought my other pants! They are still held together with a safety pin.

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Nyamirambo is also known for its hair salons. I got a big long braid put in.

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We stopped in an herbal medicine shop. Like pretty much everything in Rwanda, it was very organized and licensed by the government.

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A great deal of Kigali is still dirt roads.


One of our guides helped us pick out passion fruit and avocadoes, because we needed one last fix before we left town.

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Our delicious lunch in process–just mixing up the ukali, the corn-flour pudding, in the outdoor “kitchen.”


Our wonderfully satisfying meal, clockwise from upper left: plantains stewed with onion, tomato and celery; sumptuous potatoes with green peppers; red beans I wish I’d asked more about; the ukali, the corn-flour pudding, that is cut into wedges; and dodo, callaloo with, in this case, peanuts, dried sardines, green eggplants and celery.


Passion fruit are on prominent display in this pic because our guide Marie Aimee (who runs the organization) taught us how to eat them without a knife and spoon–a life-changing skill.

Passion fruit are on prominent display because the ladies taught us how to eat them without a knife and spoon--a life-changing skill!

(FYI on the passion fruit: You just bite off the end of it, and suck the insides out! Of course, you should wash the fruit first. It’s all so obvious now–and to think how many years I wasted fussing with them…)

Thanks for everything, ladies!


Rwanda, Really

by Zora O'Neill on April 7, 2014

To be honest, I’m still trying to sort out all the threads of our trip to Rwanda. We were there only a week, but we saw a lot, had a lot of interesting conversations, and left feeling as though we could come back for twice as long.

So this post is mostly a photo dump, just to let you know what it looks like. Which I didn’t really know. I mean, yes: green, hills, etc.

But then, of course, that’s all overlaid with mental images from the genocide in 1994. What does Rwanda look like now that it’s East Africa’s rising star? Now that the economy is booming and everyone’s praising the place for its potential and verve (and American-friendliness)?

In short, what does an African country look like when it’s not in the news, for some disaster or other?

Well, first of all, Rwanda looks clean. Like, the cleanest place I’ve ever been. Cleaner than Scandinavia.

They have a ban on plastic bags. They take them away from you at the airport!

Our friend Eric on the right, tolerating our plastic-bag-ban fascination

Our friend Eric on the right, tolerating our plastic-bag-ban fascination

There’s also a monthly community-service day whern everyone picks up litter. Eric, in the photo above, is a police officer who was off-duty when he was driving us around–and only went “on” once, when someone on a bus threw a plastic bottle out the window. (Not that he was ignoring other things–Rwanda has a very low crime rate.)

This is Kigali’s downtown skyline.

Yup, that's about it.

Yup, that’s about it.

The city is very hilly and very green.

Cool retaining walls. Moto taxis are the norm; helmets required for driver and passenger.

Cool retaining walls–click to see the little plants set in them. Moto taxis (like the motorcycle at the top) are the norm; helmets required for driver and passenger.

The roads all curve and loop around, so we pretty much never managed to orient ourselves. “This is where we saw the guy with the mattresses, right?” I said at one point.

You can't see the guy, because he's carrying them.

You can’t see the guy, because he’s carrying them.

Eric was fantastic, because he understood immediately what we did and didn’t want to see. That is, after we explained what “fancy” meant, and how we didn’t like it. So he took us to what he called “a typical East African bar.”

Roasted goat leg, greens and corn pudding (ukali) were on the menu.

Roasted goat leg, greens and corn pudding (ukali) were on the menu.

The open courtyard at the bar. Note the faux-bois columns on the right. There is a lot of faux-bois in Rwanda.

The open courtyard at the bar. Note the faux-bois columns on the right. There is a lot of faux-bois in Rwanda.

I wouldn’t have even thought that was a category of bar, but I’m glad I know now. Car Wash Grill & Sports Bar, Kigali. Make a note of it.

We drove out of the city on a couple of trips. There are a lot of people walking.

Like this jaunty man.

Like this jaunty man.

But the roads are built with extra-wide shoulders, so people have a place to walk–good planning.

Houses are tidy, with new metal roofs or older tile ones. No one lives in a grass hut anymore, said our host, Rogers. “But they can have them for leisure,” he said.

There isn’t indoor plumbing everywhere, but the government is installing public water points all the time. Every restaurant we went to had a hand-washing station.

Handy. (Har.)

Handy. (Har.)

That was good, because we ate a lot. I think I might’ve spent the entire week with a piece of goat meat wedged between two molars. But it was so good, I didn’t care.

Chez Ramadhan, Nyanza

So good, we ate here twice.

That’s Chez Ramadhan, in Nyanza, the town where the old royal palace is. Make a note of it.

Passion fruit was in season. We had it for breakfast every morning!

Our lovely Saran-wrapped breakfast, ready for pre-dawn departure.

Our lovely Saran-wrapped breakfast, ready for pre-dawn departure.

Tree tomatoes were also in season. That’s one of those fruits I’ve seen in the frozen-pulp-bricks-from-Colombia format in our grocery store, but never really understood. But it’s simple–they’re tomatoey, and they grow on trees. Not bad. But can’t compete with passion fruit.

We had some killer ice cream. As we walked up, a guy was toting a fresh can of milk into the shop. It came from a soft-serve machine, but it tasted like the barnyard, in the best way.

Mmm, peanuts.

Mmm, peanuts.

Speaking of the barnyard: We saw the Ankole cattle at the old royal palace. They are not kidding around.

The cow-tender proceeded to sing a lovely song to this cow, while brushing the flies from its face.

The cow-tender proceeded to sing a lovely song to this cow, while brushing the flies from its face.

Wikipedia tells me cattle domestication started in the fertile crescent, then spread to Africa. From the way this particular cow was still being tended, I certainly would’ve thought Africa was the original land of milk. There’s lots of locally made cheese and yogurt and other dairy products.

Edam at the grocery store

Gouda at the grocery store

The food in Rwanda was simple, but so good and fresh, it started to make me a little nervous. Like, you know it can only go downhill from here. There are so many NGOs crawling over this country, and you know American ag dudes are hustling their boring-tasting, unsuitable stuff there.

Holsteins on the money--a sign of the future. Not sure how those laptops are working out...

Holsteins on the money–a sign of the future. Not sure how those laptops are working out…

That’s all very nice, I can tell you’re thinking, but, but…what about the genocide?!

I know. It’s strange. It was only twenty years ago. It hasn’t been swept under the rug at all–there’s a museum and a memorial in Kigali, and a thousand other memorials around the country. Trials are ongoing. It’s a serious topic, but not hush-hush. The people we were with talked about it voluntarily (though their families were genocidees, not -ers, and they had served in the army that ended the genocide, which is an empowering position from which to look at history).

After being in the weird tension of Beirut, where everyone pretends the past is done with yet sharpens their knives at night, Rwanda was a flat-out relief. Even inspiring.

Yet, it still alarmed me to see this:

Looks like a Nike swoosh at first...

Looks like a Nike swoosh at first…

That Rwandese can, presumably, look at that bar of soap without flinching is still a little boggling to me. But I have lived through so little, and pretty much everyone in that country over the age of twenty has lived through too much.

The other side of the soap

The other side of the soap

And though it remains to be seen whether there will be a peaceful transfer of power after Kagame, for now I have to give him credit, because Rwanda looks great.

Cheers from the eastern shore of Lake Kivu!

Cheers from the eastern shore of Lake Kivu!


Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa

by Zora O'Neill on March 31, 2014

I just saw The Grand Budapest Hotel this weekend, and I came away with such a swoony fever over that fabulous time-warp of a place (the weird, dying 1968 hotel, not the one in the 1930s) that I’m putting off the Rwanda posts I had planned so I can tell you about the fantastico Itegue Taitu Hotel, where I stayed in January.

As I’ve written before, I have a bit of a thing for what I call “vintage hotels” (also, on occasion, motels). I’m always looking for new ones, and the Itegue Taitu was especially delightful.

Apparently, there are some new wings. You don’t want those. You want the original building–built in 1898 (Ethiopian Calendar, which I think means early 1900s), as if I have to tell you.

After spinning through the original revolving door, Peter and I practically skipped and clapped all through the lobby and dining room and upstairs. The stairs creaked! The wall sconces glowed just right! The rooms were weirdly large and erratically furnished!

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(Vintage hotel rule: Ideally, there will be no TV. But if there is one, it must always look uncomfortable and out of place.)

So, some of the old wardrobes were a little chipped. And the bathtubs a bit worn. But how many things get chucked out, only for the crime showing a bit of age? What is our mania for new and untouched? You can’t really believe no one has slept in a hotel room before you. I’d rather see this somewhat worn honesty, rather than false sterility.

I could not convince Peter that the painting was hung sideways. I imagine many hotel paintings could be improved by rotating them 90 degrees.

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Guests receive the English-language paper, because its guests are so worldly, I suppose (even though the Addis English paper is perhaps not as fine as it once was). You are welcome to read in the central lounge.

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The place is filled with paintings, some old and some new. This is Queen Teitu herself, adding some elegance to what is otherwise a rather ungracious reception room around the corner of the building. (The real reception area has been turned into a gift shop.)


And this fabulous one was on the stairs. Please note the actual silver glitter and sequins.


But our hearts really fell right out when we came downstairs for dinner. The tables were full, the waiters were bustling about in ill-fitting uniforms, and the piano player was at it.

This, though it is so distinctly Ethiopian, could be the soundtrack of all vintage hotels.