Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year in KGL

The damp Kigali night swallowed up Doreen tonight. A big blue KLM airplane took her up and away and through the mist. She will ring in the New Year somewhere over Sudan.

It is terribly sad to see her go. We will see each other next in mid-March. Most likely we will meet in Europe somewhere. But I am glad that she will be home in our cold but cozy house, will be with our cats, and will cook good food in our nice kitchen. I am hoping that she will teach the cats to skype.

I took my time returning from the airport. I grabbed a bus from the airport. It made many stops and took a route I wasn't expecting, but I made it to the middle of town. I then did some shopping, explored a little, and walked home. It rained heavily earlier, but the night was quite nice.

I am now on my balcony. Usually the lights of the city twinkle in the distance, but it is misty tonight so it is dark and murky. My neighborhood is noisier than usual. Loud church music is dueling with a party or bar that is playing loud rock/reggae music of some sort. Neither music is particularly good, and in combination it may be even worse. I am grateful for headphones.

It doesn't feel at all like New Year's Eve, just like it didn't feel like Christmas. It doesn't feel like December. I'm not sure what it does feel like. I've been feeling somewhat spatially and temporally adrift the last month.

The academic year started in early December here, due to the shift in the academic calendar in Rwanda. And we have had only a one-day Christmas break. It is odd for me to start teaching in December, and it is also unusual to teach right through the holidays. It's not necessarily bad, but it is different. Of course it is also relatively warm here, and while there are a few (fake) Christmas trees around there are few visible markers of christmastime.

And although I of course am fully aware that I am really in Kigali, it also seems somehow unreal that I am here. After fall term ended back home I worked hard (and unsuccessfully) to finish up COA work. And I worked hard (and successfully) to submit my book for copy editing. And I packed and tried to get ready to leave home for seven months. Then, after a few days of little sleep, I took two short flights to Philadelphia and then two long flights, and I was deposited here in Kigali.

I like the city a lot, and I think I will grow to like it even more in the months ahead. But there are times when I am eating a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant, or walking the tree-lined streets in the evening, or sitting on a moto as the city zips past me, or sitting on my balcony while the city twinkles idly, that it is hard to believe I am here.

And so it is almost 2012 in Kigali. I have turned up the music in my headphones. The church singing stopped for a while, but it is now back with a vengeance. The party a few blocks away still rages. I can nevertheless hear crickets chirping. It is pleasantly cool. I have no deep new year's thoughts.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One Month

It has now been one month since I left home for Kigali. It seems both like I have been here much longer than that and also that I just got here. Time has been quite nonlinear for me of late.

It is almost 9:30pm and I am working on my balcony. There is occasional lightning in the distance and the temperature seems to have dropped a few degrees in the last 15 minutes. I still have a fair amount of class preparation to do tonight, but I feel too tired to work much more. I had an energetic and fairly productive afternoon, but a large dinner at a good Indian restaurant seems to have sapped my energy. I am hoping that writing a blog entry can help me find a second wind.

It is raining lightly now. I can hear drops pinging off my roof and those of the adjacent houses. The rain is fairly gentle. This afternoon there was a downpour for about half an hour. The drainage ditches and troughs, of which there are many here, filled with torrents of water. Then it stopped fairly abruptly and was dry until now. Walking to the Indian restaurant the moon was out. It was a thin sliver, tilted at a much different angle than I am used to back home.

A steady rain is falling now. I should turn my attention to finishing class preparation for tomorrow. I have a two hour computational physics class and later a three hour computational physics lab. Friday I have five hours of general physics lab. My co-teacher is taking the lead on this lab, but I still need to be around to help out. Then Friday afternoon I will hold a review session for students studying for the physics GRE. So I have much teaching ahead before the weekend arrives. I have tomorrow's class and lab pretty well mapped out, but I need to finalize my notes and make a handout for lab.

The rain has let up some, and there is a light, cool breeze on my balcony. Time to prepare some notes and matlab code to help my students understand Euler's method.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Week Four Begins

Tomorrow I begin my fourth week of teaching. Classes run right through Christmas and New Years, with the exception that this Monday was a day off from classes. As I noted in an earlier post, this is a transition year for the academic calendar in Rwanda. They are moving from starting in January to starting in September. This year is a one-time-only calendar that starts in December and ends in June. The term is shorter than usual, and goes through the Christmas season.

Doreen and I spent the weekend in Gisenyi, which was very nice and relaxing. There were no big adventures. We stayed by Lake Kivu, relaxed, did some work, and explored the town a little. It was a nice mini Christmas break. But now I am right back in the thick of the term. In addition to my three classes, this week I begin meeting with three students who will do their senior research project with me. I will also begin a weekly review session for students who are preparing for the physics GRE.

I am more or less prepared for tomorrow's class---the 195-person mega class of general physics. I generally have a plan for the rest of the week, but I have a lot of notes to prepare to give to students. I also have my first batch of grading to do.

As usual, I am working on my balcony. It is almost 11pm and the hills of Kigali twinkle. It is relatively quiet. I can hear an occasional car drive by, and a radio is playing somewhere. It sounds like a country song, but I can't make out the language. The radio has faded and now crickets mix in with the distant sounds of cars and motos.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Week Three

I am now in my third week of teaching in Kigali. This morning I taught the 200-person general physics class. Tomorrow is statistical physics, Thursday I have my computational physics class and lab (a total of five hours), and Friday I have five hours of labs for general physics.

I think things are generally going pretty well, but it has been exhausting. Last week I felt fatigued almost all the time. Students here have very limited access to textbooks. This means that I need to provide notes that essentially serve as a textbook for them. Writing these notes takes a good bit of time. I want to make them as thorough and helpful as possible. But I also want to make them short, since students need to pay for photocopies on their own. I provide a few copies to class representatives who then distribute the notes amongst their peers.

This week things seem to be going a little better. I'm not sure if my classes are going better, but at least I have more energy. Over the weekend Doreen and I went to Volcanoes national park in the Northwest of Rwanda and saw mountain gorillas. It was amazing. I will write about the gorillas in another post. (There are some pictures up on facebook. I'll post some here when I get a chance.) It was also great to have some time to relax a little. I didn't check email for two entire days. This was the first time I've been away from email for more than a day since early September. I needed the break more than I realized.

I am now sitting in my office which is on the fourth floor of the building called KIST three. It is cloudy out and I can see an impressive rain cloud rapidly approaching from the east. It is getting darker and darker and the rain has now arrived. I can hear students yelping below as they seek cover. Thunder rumbles gently. The rains here are impressive. I like them.

The rain is falling steadily now and the view from my window is wet and misty. I will try now to tear myself away from the view outside the window and to focus on some of the many tasks I need to complete this afternoon and evening.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


I have successfully found a Chinese restaurant that serves spicy tofu. It's actually pretty tasty. It was just what I needed tonight. I am happy and relieved to know I have a source of spicy tofu in Kigali.

I am now on my balcony, winding down for the day. The moon is full and the sky is bright. A small dark patch on the hills opposite me just lit up. A local power outage must have just ended.

Friday, December 9, 2011


I am working in my office in Kigali. It is 6:20 and not too many people are around. It is already dark and the lights of Kigali twinkle on the hills across from me. I am listening to an amazing Armin van Buuren set from May 2011 in Washington DC. It is hard to explain how uplifting I find good trance music sometimes. It is providing the perfect soundtrack for me right now. Energetic, beautiful, slightly melancholy. It is exactly what I need.

It looks to be another lovely evening in Kigali, but that is a redundant statement, since in my experience every evening here is lovely. My window is open and a nice breeze is blowing through the office. I can see several kilometers away the bright lights of what I assume is the main stadium in town. Perhaps there is a football game tonight. There was an almost full moon out a bit ago, but it has now disappeared behind clouds.

I picked up my long-term Rwandan visa and work permit today. So I am now officially approved to be in the country and work through June. There is no turning back now.

It is now almost seven. I have been catching up on email and such as I write this. I think I will tear myself away from Armin and go for a short run. Then I will make some pasta for dinner and sit on my balcony, listen to the mosque and the church and the sounds of the neighborhood, and try and get a little more work done.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day one Reflections

I taught my first class today. General Physics 3114. To around 180 students. The class is taken by all first-year students in Chemistry, Food Science & Technology, and Biology. It was challenging. It was decided that I was going to do the big lecture only 24 hours before. It was a challenging class to teach. Many of the students---through no fault of their own---do not have good English skills. So a two-hour class in Physics in English is rough. And, I have a funny accent here; I do not speak Rwandan English. So I'm sure that made it doubly tough for the students. I hope the class was of some use to them. I don't think it was terrible, but it is really hard to know how it went.

KIST's academic calendar is in transition. Last year, the academic year started in January, as has been the custom in Rwanda for quite some time. Next year, the academic year will begin in September, as is customary in the rest of East Africa, with whom Rwanda is trying to integrate. So this year is a transition year. The classes start in December, and terms are only 10 weeks long instead of 13. But we are still supposed to cover as much material as we normally would. So this poses a challenge for everyone: students and faculty.

Tomorrow I teach my first Statistical Physics class to a small group of seniors. I believe there will be only 9 in the class. I'm looking forward to it. Nine students is so much better than 180. And as I was preparing tonight I was reminded just how much fun statistical and thermal physics is. I like the subject a lot, and the book I'm teaching from is fantastic so far.

I am also teaching computational physics. The class and lab for that course are both on Thursday. I expect almost 50 students.

I am now catching up on email (and writing this blog entry) on my balcony, enjoying a cool Kigali evening. I'm having a cold Primus beer and will go to sleep soon. My class tomorrow is early.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kigali Evenings

Evenings and nights in Kigali are amazing. The temperature is perfect and it is neither too humid nor too dry. It is like a summer evening in Maine, but even better. I stayed inside for much of the day, working on narrative evaluations for my COA classes and trying to get my stuff a little more organized. But as evening approached I ventured out for a short run. It was slow and difficult. It had been at least a month since I've gone for a run, and Kigali is at 5000 ft so there's not a lot of oxygen. But it was good to get moving.

After showering and some more work, I ventured out into the night. I found a sorta decent pizza place about 20 minutes from my house. I think it's called Downtown Pizza. It's not great, but it wasn't bad, either. Kigali is notorious for slow service at restaurants, but this place was fine. It seemed like a reasonably friendly place. It's good to know that there is somewhere within walking distance that I can get a quick bite to eat. They're open until 1 on weekdays and 3 on weekends. I don't know how late their kitchen stays open. I was there around 8pm today.

Speaking of food, I've been impressively unadventurous so far. So far I've had a veggie burger (three different times), pizza, and a nice Indian meal (far better than any place in Maine, but that's not saying a lot). I've cooked peanut noodles and also made pasta with a home-made sauce with some tomatoes and onions that I bought at a small local market. I will get more adventurous in the weeks ahead.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hello Kigali

I had wanted to start this blog a week or so before I left for Rwanda, so I could chronicle my thoughts as I was packing and preparing to leave. But somehow that never happened. So then I thought I would start blogging as soon as I arrived in Kigali, but that hasn't happened either. It is now Saturday and I arrived on Tuesday.

I don't have any grand first impressions of Kigali. It is both an entirely normal place and also unlike anywhere I've ever been before. I realize that's not super articulate and not helpful for readers looking for a tidy explanation, but that's the best I can do.

I am staying in the guesthouse at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, where I will be teaching physics for several months. I have my own room with a nice balcony. I am sitting there now. Evenings here are fantastically comfortable. It is neither cool nor warm. Very close to my balcony is an Episcopal church which seems to have music and singing much of the day and night. I can hear them now, singing and clapping. I am also near a fairly large mosque and can hear calls to prayer. Together, the mosque and the church make an interesting soundtrack.

The last few days have been fairly tiring. One of my bags didn't arrive with me on Tuesday. It made it to the airport yesterday (Friday). So for the first few days I was operating with only half of my stuff. It was also only Friday that I moved into the room I'll be staying in for the next seven months. But I am getting settled in, adjusted to the new time zone, and adjusted to life in Kigali.