Nobody likes being sick. Besides all the uncomfortable – sometimes painful – symptoms that plague your body while your immune system wages war against the invading germs, being sick takes you out of the game. It forces you to move at a slower pace while your body recuperates. Being sick makes you feel like you’re missing out on life.
I’ve been fortunate to never really be sick while traveling. I had a cold once, while I was in Prague, but a visit to the local doctor and some antibiotics cleared that up and I was back to my old self in no time. I’ve been dehydrated to the point that I got a headache, but that’s nothing a few cold glasses of water and a handful of ibuprofen couldn’t cure. You could say I’ve been lucky not to have a vacation ruined or a business trip cancelled due to illness. I guess I was due.
Prior to leaving for Africa, the travel doctor pumped me full of eight different vaccinations. It seemed like she had a shot for every possible malady, whether transmitted via mosquito, personal contact, air, or sick animal. But, the shots were just a start. Prescriptions for an oral typhoid vaccine, daily malaria prophylaxis, and two different antibiotics followed. Strict warnings were given against drinking water from the tap, using ice, eating anything that didn’t come piping hot, drinking milk, and even eating vegetables. Instructions were handed down on how to treat traveler’s diarrhea, which I was projected to have at least once over the course of a five week stay, and how to spot signs of more serious diseases. The doctor even offered directions on the type of mosquito repellent and sun block I should use. Perhaps I felt she had gone a little overboard with the warnings and precautions, but nevertheless, I felt more than prepared to handle whatever might assail me in Rwanda.
Three and a half weeks into the project and it had been pretty much smooth sailing. We’d eaten almost everything that had been prepared for us (our hosts are gracious enough to provide three home-cooked meals a day), visited restaurants in Kigali, Kibuye, and Musanze, taken bucket showers, hiked through the jungle and dipped our toes in a freshwater lake. I was starting to feel that I just might win this round against the travel gods – skate through the five weeks unscathed. However, the thing about getting sick is that you can try your best to prevent it, but you can never predict when it might strike.
I’ve been sick for three days. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but if you’ve experienced traveler’s diarrhea you may know some of what I’ve been going through: a slight fever, chills, cramping, vomiting, and of course, the diarrhea. I haven’t eaten since Tuesday (it’s now Friday). I’ve tried, but my body rejects any form of food. Three days without sustenance, save one half piece of bread and some apple juice, and you might think I wouldn’t be hungry anymore. Not true. It’s weird feeling both nauseous and hungry at the same time. Your stomach grumbles for nourishment, while your head is disgusted at the thought of food or the slightest smell. I don’t envy anyone who chooses cleansing routines, hunger strikes, or is afflicted with anorexia – completely denying the body of food is an incredibly difficult path to take to detox, make a point, or lose weight.
I’m taking the antibiotic I packed in the event of such an illness, and so I’m starting to feel a bit better. However, I’m physically exhausted, mentally drained, and forced to take a seat on the bench as my teammates run with the ball towards the goal-line of our project. That’s the hardest part of being sick for me – feeling forced to take a personal time out. I hate feeling like I’ve let down my team or like I’m the weak link. Maybe it’s because I’m the only girl and I feel I have something to prove, but I see myself as a trooper, someone who can push through the pain and succeed. Sometimes though, we have no choice. Life makes us take pause.
It’s humbling to realize that no matter the precautions you may take, warnings you may heed, or great shape you’re in, we are all susceptible to getting sick – none of us is invincible. Africa humbles you in many ways; knocking you down with a bout of traveler’s diarrhea is just one of the ways in which it reminds us of our own fragility. This experience has helped me to realize that getting sick isn’t about missing out on life, but rather it’s a staunch reminder that I’m really living it.
At a school such as Thunderbird, where each student is more traveled than the next, Lee Abbamonte enjoys the unique status of being the most traveled of us all. Lee does not keep his ambition secret – he plans on becoming the youngest person in history to set foot in every single country in the world. During his travels, which have included treks to places as inaccessible as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he keeps a prolific journal in an attempt to record his adventures.
Before leaving for Rwanda, I had a brief conversation with Lee over a beer at the pub. I asked him to tell me about the most memorable experience from his previous year’s travels. Without missing a beat, he said “trekking with gorillas in Rwanda.” He had no idea our team would be heading there within days. Imagine: someone as travel-jaded as Lee – someone who has raced camels in Morocco and hang-glided in Brazil – says that gorilla trekking is one of his best recent travel adventures. I honestly can’t think of a more solid endorsement.
In the weeks that followed, each time we told people that we were planning on seeing the gorillas they continued to build up the hype that Lee established: “You are going to have the most amazing time!” “Gorilla trekking! I’ve gone ten times and it’s changed my life each time.” It was hard to imagine that something could live up to the expectations that we were trying to avoid setting.
During last week’s set of 9-to-5’s, we could barely contain our growing enthusiasm. As verdant and tranquil a city as Kigali has been, we were itching to get out to the countryside and see some damn primates. Saturday morning was spent packing and we hit the road in the early afternoon, heading for Musanze (nee Ruhengeri), the heavily-touristed city from which the majority of gorilla treks depart. The three-hour drive blasted by with us singing along to an 80s music compilation. Not a bad way to start the trip. Along the drive, we were treated to some stunning scenery, especially as we neared our destination. After checking into the Kinigi Guest House, we snapped some pictures of a vibrant sunset over still-active volcanoes as we waited (for more than an hour) for our food.
Sunset Over a Volcano
We slept early so we could wake early – 6am, to be precise. The showers at Kinigi were unreal – the best I’ve ever had in Africa. I didn’t want to get out. But gorillas wait for no man, so I made sure I was at the car at the appointed hour (6:30am) and we headed off towards the gorilla trekking headquarters.
I should mention now that we were not really part of the whole “tourist circuit.” Generally, people fly into Kigali and arrange a tour with a guide service. This service then drives them in big, durable vehicles from Kigali to Musanze and arranges such things as accommodations and food and water and porters and so on. You know, the minutiae. Instead of following that route, we borrowed a car and drove ourselves, making our own bookings (nice job, Mike) and buying our own snacks.
So, as we arrived at the gorilla “base camp,” it became obvious that we would be the most under-prepared trekkers on the mountain. All of us were rocking blue jeans (true American style) and I was wearing a pair of old, busted running shoes. Every single other person at the headquarters was outfitted with sturdy boots, zip-away microfiber hiking pants, and those floppy safari hats that look so lame. I don’t know about the others, but I felt kind of embarrassed.
Nonetheless, when we presented our tickets to the head honcho of the camp, he did not judge us based on our outfits. Instead, he gave us a huge welcoming smile and said “I know why you are here, yes!” Before we had a chance to respond, he emphatically said “Susa Group!” Apparently, the gorillas have been demarcated into different groups, which we tourists visit in clusters each day. Susa Group just happens to be the group reserved for the sturdiest, healthiest hikers. Mike, Carrie, and I must have been flexing or something, to get the go-ahead on Susa. I now know that it is considered to be the apex of the treks – other tourists often start with a lesser trek and then work up to Susa. Oh no no no my friend, we are T-birds – in it to win it.
We convened with the other Susa Group trekkers (two other Americans, a French woman, and an unforgettable Austrian man [with one of the largest faces we’d ever seen] named Klaus and his wife; more to come on Klaus) and listened to our guide’s welcoming speech. Our guide, who’d been bestowed with the unique name “Placid,” gave us a run-down of the Susa Group of gorillas – 28 in number, with three silverbacks. Lucky for us, they’re the biggest group in all of Volcanoes National Park.
Klaus and His Face
After the overview, we headed to our respective vehicles to drive to the jumping-off point of the trek. While waiting for his driver, Klaus came up to me and gave me a discerning once-over, lingering on my shoes. “Are you sure to go in those?” he said disdainfully, cocking his enormous eyebrow. He lifted a foot to show me his boots. “Yes, I bought these just for this trip.” Good for you, Klaus. Before I had a chance to respond, Mike walked up (wearing legitimate hiking boots) and was also given the “Klaus Stare.” Upon seeing Mike’s boots, the massive-faced Austrian curtly nodded in approval and walked away. Awesome.
We learned that the jump-off point for the Susa Group trail was an hour’s drive from our present location, so we tried hitching rides with the Americans and Klaus. There wasn’t enough room, and as soon as he realized it, Klaus came run-walking towards our humble RAV-4 and woke up a dozing Chadd by exclaiming “There are not enough seats and you will have to drive, guide!” Apparently, he thought Chadd was the guide we were paying to arrange the whole trip. Chadd, you’re a great guy, but you aren’t worth $500 for a weekend. Simple truth.
So Chadd ended up playing the role of guide and drove us the hour to the trailhead. We expected the roads to be decent, give the number of tourists who visit Susa Group every day. Instead, they were a nightmare of stones and mud. The big, durable vehicles that all the other tourists were riding in looked somewhat appealing at this point, compared to our little ride. After a few close calls and some expert maneuvers by our driver, we made it to the trailhead (congratulations to Chadd are in order).
Carrie, Mike, and I set off up the trail, following Placid’s lead. At the vanguard was a Rwandan with a large automatic rifle (not filled with tranquilizers, and not necessarily to protect us from the gorillas). The trail was fairly steep, but the challenge of hiking was exacerbated by the fact that we were nearly 2,500 meters above sea level (for those of you uncomfortable with the metric system [Yanks, Brits] this means roughly 8,200 feet). For nearly an hour, we soldiered upward past the farms of the Rwandese who had claimed the flanks of these volcanoes as their home. As we huffed and puffed, we were embarrassed to see children laden with big yellow jugs of water streaming past us up the mountain – a testament to the hardiness of these volcano-dwellers.
Farms and Children on the Side of a Volcano
An hour of shallow breathing later, we’d reached the edge of the forest. It was a shocking non-sequitur – the villagers’ farms reached all the way to the narrow rock wall which barely held back encroaching jungle. Mike later wondered about the remaining habitat of the gorillas – are the farmers driving them ever-deeper into a diminishing environment? We crossed the threshold into the forest, and the hiking changed immediately. Gone were the dark, rich volcanic soils upon which we’d been climbing, replaced by an unbelievably thick jungle kudzu. Our guides would occasionally warn us of gaping holes hidden underneath the carpet of vines. Broken legs were one slip away. We came to a small clearing and Placid told us to strip away all of our possessions save our cameras. Apparently, the gorillas can react in different ways to human objects and it is better to be safe than to have a 500-pound primate pop you one.
Carrie Bushwhacks Her Way Through a Jungle
We continued bushwhacking through the jungle, although a reverent hush had overtaken our group as we drew nearer the gorillas; even the incorrigible Klaus was silent. The smells were overpowering – eucalyptus, nettle, and other jungle flora creating a dizzyingly heady scent. As we turned a corner, we heard the echo of a whisper passing its way down our line of hikers: “Gorillas..!” Sure enough, partially hidden in the undergrowth of the forest some ten yards distant was a lump of furry blackness – our first gorilla.
The next hour was a whirlwind, one of those hours during which you wish that you could pause reality and continue living the present ad infinitum. Shortly after seeing the first gorilla, we realized that we were in the midst of the entire Susa Group. The silverback came past, crushing his way through the forest with unparalleled strength. Adolescents scampered around, wrestling with each other and laughing. Female gorillas, tenderly carrying babies on their backs, followed in silverback’s trail.
The Susa Silverback Sits, Eating Peacefully
I don’t want to use any hyperbole to describe the experience of being there with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Just imagine the following: you are five feet from an animal twice your size and made of pure muscle. It sits down peacefully and begins to grab nearby branches, ripping them from their roots with surprising ease. As it contentedly munches handfuls of leaves, it casts a detached – perhaps curious – glance towards you. You realize that this animal doesn’t need you, that it and its brethren have survived without human intervention for untold years. And yet, there is sympathy in its eyes as it looks at you, some form of animal intelligence which seems to border on profound wisdom. You feel the deepest connection you’ve ever felt with nature, and its right in front of you, untamed and beautiful. Something powerful is shared between human and primate. I’m not making this up; it was visceral. During our hour with the gorillas, we snapped countless photos (Klaus alone took more than 200; true to form, he would interject himself right between the other photographers and the gorillas to set up shop with his massive camera [which he had made sure to compare to everyone else’s cameras – “Yes that one is okay but mine is much larger”]). We’ll post some of our shots on this site, but they can’t do justice to the feelings I just described.
What a Face
Perhaps you are wondering how we felt safe being so near such powerful animals. It wasn’t easy, at first, especially considering the guides’ warnings – “If they charge you while beating their chests, just stand still.” However, the guides were not standing idle; they’d learned to mimic the communicative grunts of the gorillas. When we would approach a new gorilla, Placid would make a deep guttural purring sound, indicating our amiability. If they ran towards us or got too near, he would issue a barking cough which expressed displeasure. These guides’ ability to control the gorilla tribe with such calls was uncanny and led us photo-snapping tourists to feel a sense of calm and comfort. But beyond that, the gorillas simply exuded tranquility as they bebopped around the forest. Well, they exuded more than just tranquility – the silverback would let loose with earth-shaking farts every ten minutes, causing our whole group to crack up.
Our hour came to a close, and we reluctantly took our leave of the Susa Group. As we walked out of the forest a reflective silence overtook us, each person internalizing their unique experience. Carrie looked at me, wide-eyed, and mouthed, “I am about to cry. They were so beautiful.” The moment we stepped out of the jungle and back into the farmland, all the emotions and thoughts we’d been bottling up exploded into chatter which persisted for the duration of our hike back to the car. We took a short break to rest, talk, and eat our snacks. Mike had brought a small sausage, and he and I were passing it back and forth. Overcome by his Austrian heritage, Klaus reached out and snatched the sausage from us, taking a big bite and saying, “I sweat so much energy. Give me the sausage.”
Along the return trek, Placid and I had an interesting conversation about the effects the gorilla tourism industry has had on the local populations. In addition to being a guide, he also has a degree in economics and rural development. He works with the Rwanda Development Board and village elders to determine development projects needed by the communities near the park and to then fund them. Thus far, they’ve built schools, water basins, and small hospitals. It’s comforting to know that our tourism is leading to growth instead of exploitation (and who knows, perhaps it is helping to preserve the gorillas’ habitat).
Mike, Klaus' Patient Wife, and Our Guides (Note the Gun)
As we neared the cars, Klaus asked more about our guide (the patiently-waiting Chadd). We tried telling him that Chadd was just an American guy – our friend – who happened to be driving us today. His response: “Ah, so he lives in Rwanda then? It is surprising to see an American guide.” The man could not wrap his mind around the possibility that some trekkers might have set up the excursion independently. Apparently, “guideless” does not translate.
On the way home, we decided to visit a resort hotel Mike had read about in his guidebook – Virunga Safari Lodge. It was billed as having “the best view in Rwanda,” and considering that every inch of this country is gorgeous, we had to check it out. The hotel was perched on the crest of a steep hill some 15 kilometers from the park. As we reached the top, we were treated with a spectacular panorama: on one side, we had an eagle-eye view of the green plateau of farmland leading up to the forested slopes of five imposing volcanoes; on the other side, the rolling hills encircled the blue waters of a broad mountain lake. Nice job again, Mike.
Chadd Versus the Volcano
View from Virunga Safari Lodge
By the time we got on the road, the sun was setting. The next several hours consisted of us discovering the challenges of driving on a single-lane highway at night in a developing country. Can anyone tell me why each car we passed chose to blast us with their brights? What a pain in the ass. In any case, we made it home none the worse for wear, just deeply exhausted. Within half an hour of our arrival, we’d all passed out.
So, I guess all that I’m trying to say is that if you ever get a chance to come to Rwanda and trek with the gorillas – take it. Was it life-changing? I think it depends on the person – you’ll have to ask Mike and Carrie. But Lee was right; it will be one of the most memorable overseas experiences of my life.
I’ll leave you with some great video of the trip, edited by Mike Byrne:
Photo Credits: Mike Byrne, Caroline Martin, Chadd Nyerges
This past Wednesday our team hit the mid-point of the project. The following is an update of where we have been and a quick glimpse of where we are headed.
As a reminder, RD Tech (the client) has contracted us to:
Research and cost alternative supply chain operations, focusing on shifting the refurbishment of RD Tech’s imports from an external supplier in the US to a vertically-integrated model with refurbishment performed by the client in one of three East African locations: Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Kigali, Rwanda; Mombasa, Kenya. This strategy should include post-user product disposal.
Conduct a cost-benefit analysis of our recommended best alternative strategy, including actionable recommendations for implementation.
The first week was spent primarily adapting to our environment, defining the scope of the project with collaboration from the client, strategizing how to break the project into manageable pieces, and assigning roles within the team. This included meeting with the client and its US investors, tours of the client’s facilities and warehouses, and individual meetings with the client to gather information on its current logistics and supply chain. In addition, the team spent considerable time dissecting the project. Coming out of week 1, the team identified the following targets to inform the final recommendation:
Business climate analysis of potential refurbishment locations, including: ease of starting a business, construction permit accessibility, employment & labor regulations, property registration procedures, credit accessibility, investor protections, taxes and operating licenses, legal environment, and ease of business closure
Country risk analysis for each of 3 potential refurbishment locations
Market demand forecasting for 11 countries in east and central Africa to determine the most attractive markets for current and future used computer distribution
Freight routing and pricing for all inland freight shipments from the 3 potential refurbishment sites to the 5 most attractive markets as determined by the market demand forecast
New refurbishment center costing for all three potential refurbishment locations. Costing will include pricing: construction/leasing, PPE, labor cost, utility costs, taxation and licensing, inland freight, duties & applicable taxes, among others
Export Processing Zone (EPZ) research and determination of eligibility, benefits, and feasibility
E-waste disposal plan and financial analysis
As the team moved into week 2, it focused on breaking down RD Tech’s current supply chain, forecasting used computer market demand, and completing the country risk analysis. The strategy was to gain an understanding of the current market and business environments before pricing the costs associated with vertically integrating refurbishment in East Africa.
While the week was research intensive, much of the information was found in deep dive database searches. Nearing the end of the week, it became clear that the team would need the price of a used computer in each of the 11 potential markets in order to have a unified variable for projecting the future market demand in each country. This required the team to begin primary research and gave a glimpse into the complexities of pricing that would come to dominate the project throughout week 3 and into week 4. What initially began as simply identifying used computer retailers throughout East Africa on the internet and contacting them for pricing, became a nearly impossible task that required attention from the entire time and a Tanzanian research assistant in the US. Unfortunately, the team was unable to obtain pricing for each targeted market and, thus, comparable data was eventually substituted. Both the current supply chain and the country risk analysis were completed successfully.
Having completed the market study in week 2 and identified the three potential locations for a refurbishment facility, the team began the week with a strong push to price the costs of building and operating the refurbishment centers and supplying retail stores. This included the following primary and secondary research:
Collaborate with client to determine estimated volume, enabling completion of three possible refurbishment facility layout diagrams
Determine necessary dimensions, staffing, and equipment for each layout
Continue research and data collection for taxes, utilities, spare parts, and wages
Contact numerous real estate and bonded warehouse sources to determine rental and purchase prices for land and warehouses
Investigate eligibility rules and benefits of operating in Export Processing Zones (tax free zones)
Contact ministries and investment boards regarding business operating laws and procedures (specifically labor, repatriation of profits, and trade laws)
Meet with four logistics companies to price inland and ocean freight routes to market and determine applicable port fees, duties, and other expenses
Pricing and researching the aforementioned is extremely complicated and often bewildering in East Africa. In addition to struggling with poor infrastructure and cultural considerations, information and pricing were often difficult to find. Assuming information could be obtained from a reliable source, it would often be contradicted at a later point in time and have to be reconfirmed through additional time-consuming research. Furthermore, the team struggled with differentiating between official rules and legalities and the realities on the ground. Often rules and laws are not enforced and/or regularly broken, thereby creating a challenge in determining what exactly is applicable to the project and should be priced.
Week 4 and beyond
As the project heads into its final two weeks in-country, the team has three stages left to complete. First, the team will conclude the pricing phase of the project. Tuesday, Feb. 23, has been set as the final day for all pricing data. From Wednesday through Friday of the same week, the team plans on delving into the second stage – analysis. The team will analyze the numerous variables, including pricing, to determine which of the three potential refurbishment facility locations is best suited for RD Tech’s future growth. Preparing for the client recommendation and composing the accompanying report will comprise the third and final step in completing the in-country portion of the project. Despite efforts to prevent missteps, the team is anticipating gaps in its research during the analysis phase and has, therefore, built in substantial buffer time to account for any additional research. This additional time includes both Saturday and Sunday of this coming weekend.
The final conversation with the client to present the team’s recommendations is scheduled for Thursday, March 4th.
Tick-tock goes the croc! This is how I have increasingly found myself explaining the TEM Lab project over the past couple of weeks. In the famous story of Peter Pan, the villain, Captain Hook, is stalked by a crocodile that having once tasted the captain’s delicious flesh is on a continuous hunt for more. Luckily for Captain Hook, the croc swallowed a clock and can be heard approaching, but despite exerting ruthless control of his crew and their captives, the incessant tick-tock of the clock holds the captain at its mercy.
On a daily basis, I can hear the tick-tock of the croc clock in my head as the time passes and the project nears its end.
If there is anything that TEM Lab is, it’s short and intense. A misguided observer may look at the projects’ warm weather locations, perhaps the beachside setup in Vietnam, or even the photos of a weekend excursion and believe that we have gone on a 6-week cultural trip disguised as a consulting project. They would be dead wrong. The reality on the ground in Rwanda is something completely different.
You generally wake up with the sun, bright and early, often to take a luke warm or even cold shower, scarf down some breakfast, and then hop in a van that weaves its way up and down the lush hills of Kigali towards work as you inhale plumes of exhaust for the full 30-minute trip. Having made it once again safely through the city, you find yourself at the office. The office is a brightly colored, steamy room occupied by two large fans that hum throughout the entire day struggling to keep the beads of sweat from appearing on your forehead and the internal fan of your computer from remaining on constant overdrive. It is here in this sunshine-filled room that you will labor away for most of the day around an L-shaped table until 5 or 6P. And just when you think the day has come to a close, you remember that you still need to return home. The 1 to 2 hour smoggy evening rush hour awaits!
Admittedly, I have omitted some of the perqs of working in Rwanda at RD Tech: home cooked lunch brought to you every day in the office, a client and host that is often more concerned about your well-being than his own, and company staff that can’t help but smile every time you try out a new word in Kinyarwanda. However, trying to finish a large consulting project with limited time in a developing African country is no walk in the park.
The following is a short rundown of the types of challenges that we face on a daily basis.
The Sound of Generators – The power goes out daily in Kigali and it always seems to happen at just the moment that you have found that one piece of essential information on the web that you have been hunting for all day. When will it come back? Who knows…sometimes it takes 15 minutes, other times hours.
“Can you hear me?” – The hard line phones in and around East African are notoriously expensive and often poor quality. The result has been a burst of telecommunications creativity with everyone jury-rigging multiple technologies to avoid the high rates. Unfortunately, the more types of technology you intertwine to make a simple call, the poorer the quality. It is often the case that we cannot hear the person on the other end of the phone. After being transferred multiple times within a company (the current record is 6 transfers) and finally reaching the person you need, it knocks the wind out of you to have them hang up simply because they can’t hear you.
“T as in Thomas…no, no Thomas…no, T as in Thomas…ok T AS IN TANZANIA! Yes, Tanzania.” – Ever tried to spell your Thunderbird email address over the phone to someone? Painful. How about a non-native English speaker who doesn’t recognize the words “thunder” and “bird.” How about to a barely proficient English speaker, on a phone line filled with white noise, in a sweltering hot room, with two large fans running in the background…I think you get the point. And now, you really expect the person on the other end of the phone to send you the pricing information you so desperately need after you just got done yelling out your name followed by @ and 19 letters? Sure, there is always the @global.t-bird.edu address. Good luck explaining the hyphen.
Sweating It Out
“It’s up again…no, no sorry it just died.” – Our client has done everything possible to keep us well connected, including shelling out hundreds of dollars for average speed internet that can just barely handle a Skype call. Yet, despite his efforts the internet is always on the fritz. We have all been on frustrating Skype calls that were dropped more than 10 times in 30 minutes, and we are constantly rationing bandwidth amongst ourselves to download documents or do very basic research online.
The Digital Divide – By far the most daunting obstacle facing us is lack of information. Most of the information that we need to complete our project cannot be found on the internet or through deep dives into research databases. It is only available from the horse’s mouth, i.e. by calling government officials, real estate agents, and others. Sounds easy right? No problem, just call the investment board and they should have the answer you need. In reality, many folks you talk to don’t understand what you are asking for and if they do, they generally don’t have an idea who knows the answer. Assuming you find someone who does have an answer, the question then becomes, how do you validate their answer? On more than one occasion, we have fielded information from phone conversations with bureaucrats only to find that the information wasn’t accurate. And when you do finally have someone on the phone you trust with good information, the phone line is often so full of static that you can’t hear them.
I am not complaining in the least. In fact, I love it all. But as you enjoy the bright photos, the reflective experiential blogs, and the fun sound bites that we will continue to post, don’t be lulled into believing that it’s all fun and games.
We pulled up to the small dock to find three of our host’s men animatedly discussing some matter in Kinyarwanda, the local language. As we disembarked our little motorboat, the only bit of English we picked up from the conversation was, “It’s good. It doesn’t spit.”
“What doesn’t spit?”
Oh, that would be the two-meter snake the lads sent to Hades shortly before our arrival at the beautiful eco-resort and spa under construction on Lake Kivu.
“Two meters. Wow. But you said, ‘It’s good.’ So it’s not poisonous?”
Immediately and in unison came vigorous head shaking from the three dockhands, the owner of the resort and Jules. “Oh no, it’s poisonous.” It’s just one of those “good” two-meter poisonous snakes…y’know, ’cause it doesn’t spit its poison at you.
That’s awesome! I, for one, was reassured and stoked to run up into the carved-out-of-nature resort, where rocks form your bathtub, trees shroud you from neighboring cabins and two-meter poisonous snakes bring you your room service in the morning. At least you don’t have to worry about them spitting in your food if you get a rep as a bad tipper.
Chez Serpent, Lake Kivu's Newest (and most reptilian) Eco-Lodge
You gotta love a place where the snake you’re wrestling “ain’t so tough” because he’s only a black mamba and not a spitting cobra. I think this says a lot about Rwanda and the difference in mentality we citified Westerners have when traveling to lands – not to mention eco-resorts under construction – more connected to nature.
This weekend, the gang is going to see the gorillas in the north. This is very significant in that we are currently in the only place on the planet where these creatures can be observed in their natural habitat. And the Rwandan government has taken great pains to ensure that the habitat is preserved and treated with respect. One of the mechanisms implemented to achieve this preservation and reduce foot traffic is the $500 fee foreigners are charged to take the trek.
I feel this excursion may be a turning point in my life. Until now, whenever faced with a physical challenge, I have risen to the occasion and gotten the job done. This time, however, I am hanging back, sending the team into the bush without me. A number of ailments have influenced my decision: general fatigue, poverty, but most prominently the fact that I am dreadfully out of shape. My knee buckling under me over the last two weeks has been the icing on the maybe-I-shouldn’t-go cake. Four knee operations over the years and a significant amount of unneeded weight have done a bit of a number on me. All this combined with the fact that the trek is at altitude (about 9,000 feet) have influenced me to err on the side of caution this time and wimp out.
I made it up the mountains north of the Terai in Nepal in 105-degree heat and intense humidity while saddled with dysentery (I thought they were actually going to have to helicopter me out); I made it up the deathly initial slope at Wadi Mujib at the Dead Sea in 100-degree dry desert heat just last year; but man, these days I crap out walking up a hill in Kigali. Factor in altitude…perhaps discretion is the better part of valor.
Chadd, Mike, and Friends Sweatin' It Up Wadi Mujib
I have, however, decided to view my absence from this once-in-a-lifetime return to nature in a positive light. I’ve come so close I can taste it. This just means I must come back some day, return to this beautiful land of green banana trees, rich red soil and gorillas found nowhere else on the planet. Maybe I’ll do a whole adventure trip – Safari, Kilimanjaro and the gorillas in the mist. Or maybe I’ll be working here again and fortunate enough that my weekend adventures all happen to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Either way, it will be yet another opportunity for this city boy to reconnect with the natural environment with which all of our souls organically crave communion. I can’t wait. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to see a snake that spits…
Trained on the mean streets of Amman, Jordan, Michael “Schumacher” Byrne leaped at the chance to get behind the wheel of our host Jules’ turbo minivan last weekend. The mission: Cart Team Rwanda plus Jules and Joel 2-3 hours through lush mountain countryside to the lakeside town of Kibuye. The drive was amazing, with lush green tropical vistas, replete with the ubiquitous banana tree, and rich red African soil delighting our eyes and feeding our souls for the entire trip.
The roads were winding but paved, and on our one stop we were mobbed by local children who were at first scared of, but then fascinated by, our video camera. The handheld camera does resemble a small pistol, and were I a soldier in a warzone witnessing someone pointing it at me, I would likely shoot him. But when I aimed the camera at myself to show it was harmless, the kids stopped scattering and climbed all over each other to check it out.
As we approached our destination, the small town on the shore of Lake Kivu, Mike was clearly in his element, telling Jules that directions from the backseat were no longer necessary, “I got it. You just follow the signs to Kibuye, right?” Well, sort of.
This worked for the majority of the trip, but we got turned around a little once we arrived in Kibuye – not our fearless leader’s fault.
As we finally approached the site of our hotel, we found ourselves careening around a few blind corners. Mike was regaining his confidence at the right-hand drive helm of our ship of fools just in time for sage yet slightly hesitant counsel to arrive from the backseat: “It’s not one way, Mike.”
Jules’ comment left the entire minivan laughing uproariously. “It’s not one way.” No s***.
One of the reasons I joined this project was Mike Byrne. When you sign on for a Mike Byrne team, you know you’re in for a wild ride. I’ve always used the Spinal Tap reference when describing him. Mike goes to 11. If it’s quitting time, Mike will excitedly declare, “I think we should stay ‘til just 6:15 (read: 7:00) to bang this out.” It doesn’t matter that “this” isn’t due until next week. Mike’s exuberant logic is, “Just think of how much more time we’ll have to get other stuff done!”
We call Mike “Golden Boy” because he never quits – and of course, because of his long blond hair. There are some who are just naturally gifted. Rob is one of these. Arguably, Mike is too, but his true strength in my observation is “man-made.” He is eminently capable, bright and creative, but Mike’s real gift is his seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm, energy and mission-focus
Yeah, that Mike, he’s a real underachiever.
So work with Mike, I say. Hire Mike, I say. Even if it is a pain to stay at the office until 6:15 – or 7:00 as the case may be – when you don’t really need to. And don’t sweat it when he takes those blind curves a little wide and pushes the edge of the envelope. That’s just his style. Just fasten your seatbelt, or better yet, hang on from the running boards, and catch Golden Boy’s overachiever-fever. In the end, you’ll be glad you did…or you’ll just be too exhausted to care.
The higher-ups at the Tanzanian Peace Corps headquarters issued this warning with such regularity and such gravity that I began to tune out when other people would try to tell me of the difficulties of repatriation. As it turns out, the true difficulty did not lie in leaving the life I had built for myself over two years. No, the hardest part was coming home – to the places and people I had bid farewell with tears or with parties, only to find that the world about which I had been unwittingly romanticizing during my life abroad no longer existed. It wasn’t that my home had disappeared (at least, not in a literal sense), but rather that parts of me had changed so dramatically that they could not fit into the groove I’d left behind.
Prior to leaving the US, I had mixed feelings about returning to East Africa. I won’t lie – I didn’t return from my Peace Corps service heaping praise upon Tanzania’s people or its culture. Jadedness was an unfortunate by-product of my time there. Last summer, I was offered an internship in Arusha, a tourist city nestled between the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro. It also happens to be the only place where I’ve ever been mugged at knife-point. I reread some of my old ramblings about the city and my own words swayed me against taking the internship. However, with time I’ve come to view my tenure with the Peace Corps in a less critical light; even if it was an epoch of my life filled with challenge and disillusionment, my time in East Africa made the region and its customs a part of my identity.
With that in mind, returning to Africa has been a whole new homecoming. The hard-won cultural adaptations I’d undergone during my Tanzania years, and then subjugated upon the resumption of my American life, have become invaluable once again. I find myself searching my memories, trying to relearn the behavior patterns which allowed me to swim so freely through the rivers of culture here. How strange, to find new value in the thoughts and mannerisms which I had railed against, once upon a time.
I did not want my previous experiences with this land to color my expectations of the incredible opportunity which Thunderbird gave me and my team. And while my recollections of this place have been softened and brightened over time, I had no idea if I would find beauty or frustration upon my return. Well, I can happily say that the majority of my musings were for naught – I have been so pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming positive nature of this experience.
The contrast between my Peace Corps house (left), and my current residence
One of the most fundamental differences between my Peace Corps service and this project is in the socioeconomic level of the people I am trying to serve. During the former, I taught at a public school, living with my fellow teachers on the school campus. No walls separated me from my community. Now, the business for which we are consulting has provided us with some swanky digs in a gated compound, complete with hot water, electricity, wi-fi, and privacy. It makes sense that for a short-term gig our client would seek to focus on ensuring our comfort, and I’m glad they have. It allows me to view East Africa from an entirely different lens than that of the grassroots development volunteer, through which all my previous experiences were filtered. My team are now the “ivory tower foreigners” sequestered in our private palace, the sheltered expatriates that I once (perhaps unfairly) mocked. In our defense, mission success will not come from complete integration into Rwandan society, but rather from the productivity engendered by our relative seclusion.
And not all is different. I have found such joy in rediscovering the parts of East African culture that I’d never realized I was missing. For example, yesterday I caught a ride home from work on a motorcycle taxi. The driver spoke French and Kinyarwanda, but no English. So I hazarded a “hello” in Kiswahili, and the guy beamed from ear to ear. The entire 30-minute ride home, he and I attempted to have a conversation in Kiswahili, shouted over the sounds of whipping wind and chaotic traffic, about the importance of language in understanding and accepting people. At the end of the trip, he hopped off his bike and gave me a fist bump and a hug. It’s interactions like this, triggered through a simple greeting, that make me realize how much I missed this place.
There is no telling when the debate of nurture versus nature began, but it’s incessant resonance continues to dog the way we try to delineate, categorize, and interpret the world. Is homosexuality a gene or a result of life circumstances? Were the Columbine boys victims of a Godless American society awash in fear and violence or were they innately evil? Or, to echo Malcolm Gladwell, what is the source of success?
The management sections of America’s largest bookstores deliver a decidedly lopsided verdict. “It can be learned!” their titles protest. But does it make any sense to derive our answer from self-anointed prophets of business acumen whose profit-driven agenda is enhanced by perpetuating this myth? Likewise, many religious dogmas rely on pure evil as a key ingredient in the more coercive interpretations of their theology. Is this any better of a guide? Perhaps what boggles me the most is the extent to which we will go to prove one side right and the other wrong. Why can’t we simply admit that it is some mix of nature and nurture, allowing ourselves the luxury to dig deeper into the more nuanced aspects of each individual phenomenon?
Despite my efforts to quell this debate in my own mind, the pendulum of nature versus nurture once again swung back to life this past week as I began to address one of the most lucrative practical applications of this debate – management leadership. Although I started leading our Rwanda team in early December of 2009, it has only been over the past week that I began leading on a daily basis from a shared location, Kigali. (Before hand, we were primarily in communication via email and over an occasional conference call.) The intensity of the project and the intimate living and working conditions with the team and our client have created numerous challenges and caused me to think once again about leadership and the sources that I pull on to overcome these issues. Do I listen to my gut, a phrase that causes me to shudder considering its most famous and recent orator, or do I rely on my experiences and training to lead the way forward? Perhaps I should remind myself that it is a delicate mix of the two.
Over the coming weeks, I plan to write a series of blog posts that will reflect on my leadership during the Rwanda project. They will be written in an attempt to provide you, the reader, an intimate look at my thought processes, decisions, results, and eventual evolution as a leader through the project. I do not expect to determine where nature stops and nurture begins, but instead will attempt to flush out how I use the two in coming to decisions. In doing so, I hope to not only give you a window of insight into the Rwandan project, but to allow you to reflect on your own experiences as well.
It would be easy to lose yourself in this foreign land. Banana plants line the sides of dirt roads that meander over the hilly landscape. A pint-sized child is wrapped across the back of his mother as she skillfully balances a basket of potatoes from the morning market on her head. Western-style button-down shirts are worn atop traditional wrap-skirts with vibrant patterns. Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, French, and English can be heard all at once on downtown street corners. A pick-up game of soccer is played by a group of shoeless boys on a nearby dirt pitch. The smell of roasted corn and burnt wood chips permeates our neighborhood block.
The people, sights, sounds, and smells are so captivating that even after five short weeks I will leave this country forever impacted. My perspective will be broader, my understanding of what unites us as humans will be more pronounced, and my appreciation for my family and loved ones will be even greater.
Productivity in Paradise
However, this isn’t a vacation. I haven’t been afforded the luxury of losing myself completely here. I came to Kigali with two very clear objectives: to help a local computer business grow and to learn as much as I can about Rwandan culture. To achieve both of these objectives I must successfully maneuver a delicate balance between practicing strategies for high performance and embracing new cultural experiences.
The latter is easy. Everywhere I turn there is a chance to learn something new, see a spectacle I’ve never imagined, or feel a way I’ve never felt before. It doesn’t hurt that both our host and his wife have welcomed the team with the type of East African hospitality and graciousness I’ve only heard about. Each of us has our own room in their guesthouse, including access to a freshly stocked kitchen, bathrooms with clean towels and hot showers, and a sitting room equipped with ‘local-speed’ wi-fi. During the three meals we eat together every day, we’re not only provided a lavish spread of locally grown fruit, grains, and protein, but also offered stories reflecting the intricacies of African culture. We’ve been given tours of the entire city with a personalized narrative of the historic significance of the places we’ve visited. Our host, Jules, has also acted as a cruise-director, suggesting activities that will ensure we are exposed to the best that Rwanda has to offer.
The former – practicing strategies for high performance – has proven to be a more difficult task. When time is a fluid concept and you spend the majority of it together with your team and your client, scheduling your day becomes a somewhat futile task. Nonetheless, I’ve developed tactics for carving out personal time to devote towards nurturing my physical, emotional, and spiritual health and ensuring my top performance as a business consultant.
My day starts at 5:45AM when I rise to workout on the front lawn while the cook, house servant, and guard giggle at the funny ways in which my body twists. I join the group at 7:15 for our hour-long breakfast (the shortest meal of the day) before we head to the office at around 8:30. I eat less than my colleagues and hosts in an attempt to maintain my energy levels throughout the day (and have gotten used to the teasing that my smaller portions have attracted). Often, I take mental breaks that allow me to journal my experiences and connect with loved ones. Sometimes, I get the chance to take a mid-day walk with a teammate around the city to recollect my thoughts and refocus my energies when I return to the office. A power-nap upon returning from the office helps to reinvigorate me for the few hours I spend with my team and client before retiring to my chambers for an early slumber.
Finding a balance that enables me to embrace Rwandan culture, develop lasting friendships, and sustain a high level of performance in the workplace is critical to my success here. I’ve struggled to find that balance in this exotic world where time has an unfamiliar rhythm, where I’m seldom alone, and where I can’t control the myriad extraneous variables impacting my day. On top of all of this, I constantly discover new stimuli that are so attractive that my desire to play is often stronger than my desire to work. However, maintaining the balance I’ve managed to find is something that I owe not only to my client, teammates, professor, and any future TEM Lab students, but also to myself, and to my family and loved ones who continue to support my ever-present wanderlust.
Our first day of work in Rwanda came to a close as we dined on our host’s lawn in the calm Kigali evening under the watchful gaze of distant twinkling stars. Absent from our late dinner were the intensity of the day’s heat as well as the sweet aroma of wood-burning fires which typically signal evening in Kigali. While the stars were not as abundant as I had expected, they were present, joining me in drinking in the sights and sounds and smells of this tiny beautiful African nation.
The equatorial warmth and humidity the team encountered as we stepped off the plane four days ago were neither stifling nor overwhelming. In fact, they were just right – soothing, yet possessed of an underlying intensity that left me wondering how it might feel at high noon. By Tuesday, however, it was hot…Africa hot. And as we trotted off to our first day on assignment clad in Western business attire, I questioned the logic of such trappings and found myself drifting to the day before, our first full day in Rwanda, a national holiday known as Heroes’ Day.
Heroes’ Day memorializes not only soldiers who have fought for the nation but all Rwandan heroes, from a founding father to a simple civilian who may have protected and hidden those fleeing the genocide that tortured the nation some sixteen years ago. On Heroes’ Day, our gracious hosts, Jules and Diana, treated us to a wonderful tour which included a variety of local sites as well as sobering reminders of the genocide, such as the Hotel Des Mille Collines (“Hotel Rwanda”) and the Parliament building. The Parliament building stands in mute testimony to the nation’s heroes as it still bears the pockmarked façade it gained when some 600 rebels and the civilians they were protecting converted it to a stronghold during the war.
Scars of war on the Rwandan Parliament building
The tour completed, Mike and I walked off dinner over the red clay hardscrabble in Jules’ neighborhood as day gave way to night in the land of a thousand hills. As we walked, we collected an entourage of about a dozen smiling children, really young kids from the neighborhood who giggled and shook our hands and greeted us with high-pitched “Bonjours!” A pulsing drumbeat echoed through the twilight as the air cooled and the smell of burning wood drifted under our noses. We kept thinking we would find a local bar or club around the next corner, but none materialized. We would later learn that the music and beats were sounds of celebration emanating from the stadium two hills distant and could be heard throughout Kigali.
I went to bed that night marveling at the resiliency of the Rwandan people. They have endured such suffering so recently, yet their nation is developing faster than any in the region. This is, of course, due in large part to a massive influx of aid which has been channeled into the country over the last decade plus. But aid alone does not develop a nation, and the industry with which Rwandans have used this assistance is impressive to say the least. From my perspective so far, Rwanda is indeed a nation of heroes.