Monday, October 15, 2012


Memory is weird. I've spent the last two days grading two long assignments for my calculus class. Somehow the repetitive grading is giving me Kigali flashbacks. I had a sudden vision this afternoon of the view from my apartment balcony.

Life is fine back home in Maine. It is getting cold and dark now, and will get colder and darker in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In a little less than four hour's time I will leave Kigali. Today was a like a miniature version of my seven months here: interesting, fun, tedious, meaningful, pointless, frustrating, satisfying. As always, the weather was just about perfect. I just got back from a final run through the neighborhood. I will soon shower, pack a few remaining items, call a cab, and head to the airport. But first I will sit a moment and enjoy the scene from my balcony one last time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Final Night

It is my last night in Kigali. The last week has been a bit of a blur. I have been quite busy finishing things up, and my head is filled with mixed thoughts. Rwanda is a complex place; it has been a difficult and intense and (mostly) rewarding seven months. I am sad to say goodbye to friends here and will miss quite a few things about Kigali, but I am very, very ready to be home.

The last few days it has been almost eerily quiet on campus. The last exams were Friday, and so there are almost no students around. The KIST science building is mostly dark at night. They have even turned off the streetlights outside the building. It is still easy to see, though, as the moon has been bright.

My exams are graded and I am well on my way to being packed. Tomorrow I will attende the presentations of the senior theses from 8:30 - noon. Then I will spend a few hours in the department taking care of lots of odds and ends. I expect I'll end up taking lots of photos with the graduating students and other faculty. I will then return to my apartment, finish packing, bid farewell to the guesthouse staff, and head to the airport. I expect it to be a busy and draining day, but I am looking forward to it.

I am, as usual, on the balcony. It is darker than usual despite the nearly full moon. A radio is playing somewhere and crickets chirp. I will miss the balcony. It is a peaceful place to work, to eat breakfast in the morning, to have a cup of coffee in the afternoon, and to just sit and think and try to make sense of it all.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Final Countdown

I returned this evening from 11 days in Tanzania on safari. It was an amazing trip. The animals and the scenery were stunning. It was the most vactioney vacation I've taken in a very long time, in that I was able to almost completely unplug and not worry about work. There was nothing immediate or large that I was thinking about, so it felt like a real break.

I am now back in Kigali, on my balcony as usual. I have less than two weeks left before I return. I have a lot to do, but it seems manageable. There are 72 finals to grade and some final formatting and very minor edits for the book. I also have lots of odds and ends to take care of. So my days will be full, but things seem under control.

I am looking forward to my last days in Kigali---visiting my favorite places and doing some of my favorite things. I am also looking forward to being home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I succeeded in finishing all my grading by midday yesterday. Friday and Saturday I graded over 150 midterms. It went surprisingly quickly. My desire to be finished was a great motivator. Some caffeine and some excellent spicy tofu on Saturday night helped considerably.

Tomorrow Doreen and I leave for a 10-day trip to Tanzania. We will visit parks and will see elephants and giraffes and such. I am certain it will be fantastic. It is exciting to be going to game parks, exciting to see Doreen, and exciting to not have to worry (much) about work for 1.5 weeks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

All over but the grading

Classes for semester II have ended. I have given my last "midterms", or CATs as they are known here. I taught my last class on Wednesday. I gave a public lecture on Chaos today. The book is in my publisher's hands. I should be getting final proofs to review in a few weeks.

So all I have to do in the next few days is grade 166 midterms. It is a lot, but I think I can do it. Doreen arrives on Sunday. We leave on Tuesday for a ten-day trip to Tanzania. I then have 1.5 more weeks in Kigali.

I am on the balcony and am exhausted. It is similar to the feeling I get at the end of a term at COA. I know I need to get food. Today I have only eaten a danish, a cup of yogurt, and five crackers. I am probably too hungry to notice I am hungry. I can't quite decide where to go, nor can I gather the energy to start moving.

It is unusually humid. It actually feels sticky. The air is damp and still and it was hazy/smoggy today. There is music from the church and murmurings from the neighborhood. Soon I will go out into the calm night in search of food.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hard to Believe

Somehow it is June and there is only a week left in the term. It is hard to believe that in the next week I need to grade 200 midterms. And I just finished a batch of 36 midterms. Also this week I need to help my three research students finish up their theses. It is hard to believe that all this will happen, but I trust that it will. And once next week is over, I think I will have smooth sailing for a while.

It is also hard to believe that I have been away for six months now and that I return in just one month. I am looking forward very much to returning, although I think it will be a bit of a shock. Mostly a good shock, but a shock nevertheless.

I have been missing home, as usual. But the last week or so I've also been missing friends back in Maine more than I've felt of late. It will be good to reconnect and catch up. I look forward to sharing stories and thoughts, both to help me process and digest my experience here, but also to help me (re)adjust to life in Maine.

Today is graduation at College of the Atlantic. It is odd not to be there; I've been at every one since 1999. Next year I'll start a new streak.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Sunday Afternoon Update

It is almost 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon. I am working in my office and watching a rainstorm approach. It looks different than most. It is wider and moving less quickly than usual. The airport, which is just a few miles to the east, is completely shrouded in rain. Here is is still dry, although it is windy and dark. It is hard to tell if the line of rain is moving, but I think it approaches slowly.

There have been a handful of things here that have been sources of growing frustration. They have left me somewhat sour. I don't want to blog about them, and so won't go into any detail. It is nothing major, and I am doing fine. But I am looking forward to being done with teaching.

I am definitely in the home stretch. There are only three weeks of classes left. During this time I need to do lots of grading of midterms. But I think the teaching itself is pretty much under control. I also need to help my three senior thesis students finish up. This will be a lot of work, but somehow it will get done.

After those three weeks Doreen arrives from the US, and my only work will be to grade the finals for my two classes. We will travel some in Tanzania, and will also likely do some traveling in Rwanda.

The line of rain seems be holding steady across the valley. The wind whistles around the building. There are windows in the office next door that don't really latch shut. They bang back and forth in the wind. It would not surprise me if someday they shatter.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Street preacher?

In the alley just to the south of KIST, which I can partially see from my balcony, a street preacher is holding forth. At least I assume he's a street preacher. I can't see him over the wall, but I can here someone talking. And talking. And talking. He's been at it for about 15-20 minutes and shows no sign of slowing down.

He is speaking in Kinyarwanda, so I can't understand what he is saying. There are occasional English phrases and I thought I heard a few French words, but I have no idea what he is talking about. From what I can see there is a crowd of a few dozen people who are listening to him. Five minutes ago there was a smattering of applause. Other than that the crowd is silent and motionless. They appear a little bored.

Thankfully he is not that loud. He is not amplified, and he is not even yelling. The preaching and singing and hollering from the nearby church is much louder, as are the calls to prayer that are broadcast through the neighborhood.

It is an odd place to be delivering a sermon, if indeed that's what it is. In Berkeley the street preachers usually set up on a reasonably busy corner. This is an street that is almost an alley. It gets very little traffic.

Yesterday was a day of cataclysmic rain. But it cleared in the afternoon and I was able to go for a nice run in the early evening. After a shower I zipped over to my favorite Chinese place and devoured a delicious plate of spicy tofu.

The end of the semester nears. Just four weeks left. It is the time of the term when the end is in sight. But it is not so near that one can just sprint to the end. I have a lot of work to do the next four weeks.

The preacher preaches on. His tone rises and falls. His cadence quickens and then slows. There are dramatic pauses. Sometimes I think he is done, but then he starts again.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I am working, as usual, on my balcony. It is a little after 12:30am. It is cool and pleasant.

There is an unusual sound emanating from the south. I am pretty sure that what is happening is that it is raining heavily about a mile south of me. Here, I am on my balcony as usual, and it is dry. But the rain in the south is pounding the aluminum roofs in Nyamirambo, the neighborhood to the south of me.

The result is a remarkable sound. It is both soothing and gentle, and also a little eerie.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

May Arrives

I spent last weekend in Kibuye, a lovely little town on the shores of Lake Kivu. I relaxed, went for a few walks, ate some decent food, and enjoyed looking at the lake and the clouds and the mountains across the lake in the Congo. I got some good work done on the book. The last stretch involves doing a final proofread and making the index. I am about halfway done with both tasks.

Getting out of Kigali was nice. I like Kigali a lot, but the change of pace was great. It was quiet and peaceful. It was a very relaxing, and yet also productive, weekend.

I returned to Kigali on Monday. Although I got a lot of work done on the book, I was behind in other tasks. So I've spent the last few days getting caught up. Tuesday was a holiday, so my classes didn't meet. Today I taught Atomic Physics. Next week will be midterms in both of my classes.

There is not much other news. I spend my days working, shuttling between office and home depending on where internet works. Sometimes I work downtown. I teach, I grade homework, and I work some more. It is not a bad existence, although it is a little dull at times. I will try to post some pictures of Kibuye later in the week.

It is a little past midnight and it is a pleasantly cool evening. The scene is the usual. I am on the balcony. I can hear crickets and someone is playing a radio over in the science building. There are more lights on than usual. Perhaps many students are studying for midterms. It is week five of a ten-week term.

Tomorrow I will head to the embassy to do some photocopying. And my afternoon is booked with student meetings. In the evening I will probably go to my Chinese restaurant and get some spicy tofu.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Time passes

It is a cool evening in Kigali. The sky is a dark blue/gray and I hear students talking over in the science building, crickets and crows chirp, and the evening call to prayer just finished echoing through the neighborhood to the south.

It has been a slow day -- one of those days where relatively minor inconveniences annoy me more than they should. The book creeps closer to completion. The first proofs were submitted on Monday. I am now working on the index and will do one final proofread. I get the proofs back from the publisher in a week and a half. Then I enter final changes and it's over. I don't know how extensive the final changes will be. Any changes will be about formatting or spacing. The copy-editing phase is done.

Classes went ok this week. Things move along. Next week will be light in terms of teaching. Tuesday, when I normally teach my mathematical physics class, is a holiday so class will not meet. We will make up the class in a few weeks. The following week I will give midterms in both of my classes.

A week from Monday I think I need to have my regular and supplemental exams written for both of my classes. The tests aren't administered until mid-June, but the exams need to go to an external reviewer for approval. So I need to write the exam with about half of the class not having been taught yet. I don't like this system at all. It means that I write the exam guessing at what I will cover. I much prefer for a class to unfold organically, especially the first time I teach it. But that's not the way it is here. So I'll guess at what I'm going to get through. It is hard to avoid "teaching to the test" with this system. But it is what it is.

The next two weeks or so will be busy with exam writing and book work. I think I may spend the weekend away from Kigali. A change of scenery might be rejuvenating and energizing. And I'll need a lot of energy to push through the next few weeks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moving Along

I continue to work on my book. It is nearing completion. I spent much of Friday and Saturday re-sizing the axis labels on the majority of the figures. The text has a total of 333 figures, so this was not a small task. I now need to proofread a few additional sections, work on some spacing issues, and lighten some of the photos. Then it goes back to the publisher for a quality check. While this is underway, I will make the index. Then I clean up anything the publisher finds in the quality check, and it is done. There is still a lot of work to do, but I am moving along.

There is little else to report. Classes yesterday and today went ok. It is the rainy season, so there are occasional heavy rains. But it does not rain all the time. So far rainy season has been very pleasant.

(Doreen took the above picture when we were exploring the pyramids in Cairo in March.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Not much new

There is not much new to report. I have been working entering lots of final edits and making many small changes to figures in my book. I am in the home stretch. This weekend I will make the index. I've been working just about non-stop on it all week. It will be great when it is done. Just a few more days.

This morning there was steady rain. It was dark and cool, for Kigali at least. I had breakfast on my balcony, but I needed an extra layer so stay comfortable. But as the day progressed it cleared. This afternoon from my office the view was spectacular. I felt as if I could see 1000 hills from my window alone. It is now a perfect evening. The sun has set and there are some purple clouds in the sky. It is comfortable out, although I suspect tonight will be a little bit chilly. I will probably wear a light jacket when I head out into the night for my usual Friday-night tofu.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


This week marks the 18th anniversary of the start of the genocide. On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down while landing at the Kigali airport. This was followed by 100 days of unthinkable violence and murder. Estimates vary, but most put the number at around 800,000 killed.

The 6th was a Friday. At the exact moment that the plane brought down eighteen years ago, I was having a plate of spicy tofu at my favorite Chinese restaurant. I was just a few miles from the airport.

This week is a memorial week. There are no classes, and many businesses and offices are open only for a half day. The city is quieter than usual, but not as much as I had expected. I went for a run today at dusk and the streets were no more or less busy than is typical.

Most of the time, I feel the genocide is everywhere and nowhere. Rwanda has made amazing progress since 1994. Kigali is clean, pleasant, and safe. There has been very little violence the last decade and poverty rates are declining. At the same time, I feel that the shadow of the genocide is subtly everywhere. Eighteen years is not that long ago.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


There is a nice heron that hangs out on campus. Sometimes I see it hunting around the guesthouse. Last week I finally got a few decent pictures of it.

I am almost certain it is a Black-headed Heron (Andea melanocephala). According to my bird guide, black-headed herons like to hang out in grasslands and drier areas in addition to wetlands. The heron I see prowls around in dry drainage ditches. I assume it is looking for insects.

Monday, April 2, 2012


When I was in Cairo I bought some soap at a nice store that sells a bunch of natural products. The soap is basil scented. It smelled nice, and the soap looked to be high quality. They had many other scents, but basil seemed new and interesting, so I got a little bundle of four bars of basil soap.

The soap is nice, but the basil scent is a little odd. It's very pleasant, but when I shower I sort of feel like I'm showering with pesto or something. It's not a bad smell at all; it's just unusual for soap.

In other olfactory news, the entire KIST lawn on this side of campus has been cut by one guy with a weed whacker over the course of Friday and Monday. I don't know why. Usually it is done by hand by a team of workers with scythes. The total area is perhaps an acre. Maybe two. The weed whacker guy was working around the guesthouse this morning, which was somewhat annoying. But he finished, and now there is a nice summery cut-grass smell. I like it.

Finally, this weekend the guesthouse lost power for around 36 hours. This isn't typical. Usually power outages are 10-15 minutes. It wasn't that inconvenient, since I was working in my office, which had power and internet. And I have a headlamp and candles and a little rechargeable LED desklamp. So light was no problem.

The problem was the refrigerator. Suffice it to say that the fridge doesn't smell very good right now. I threw out my things that had spoiled, but there is some food that I don't think belongs to anyone, so nobody has thrown it out. Tomorrow I may lose patience and just purge anything that looks suspect.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Saturday rhythm

Today began with rain. Pounding rain in the middle of the night, cacophonous on the metal roof. There then followed alternating periods of drizzle and downpour. It persisted through midday. I got out of bed around ten. Shortly thereafter the guesthouse lost power. Usually power outages are only 15 minutes or so. This one has lasted all day.

It was quite cool in the morning. I had to put on another layer as I had my coffee on the balcony. The wind and the rain was hypnotic. The cool weather was a nice change. After a slow morning I headed to my office, where there was power and internet. I spent the day working, entering book edits and purging forbidden contractions. In the evening I went downtown and had a satisfying veggie burger. I then did some grocery shopping and returned for more work.

I am now on the balcony typing by candle light. Earlier it was bright. There was a lopsided half-moon and many stars. But the city is now shrouded by mist. It is damp, and neither warm nor cool.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

In the air

It is Friday night and I am on my balcony. It was an unusually warm and humid day. It wasn't too bad, but it was just a little bit uncomfortable at times. The air is cooler now, but still heavy. There is lightning and thunder in the distance to the south.

I got up very early this morning to play ultimate frisbee. The game started around 6:30am. When I awoke the sky was an amazing mix of pink and purple. It faded quickly as it got brighter. I spent much of the day editing my book. I purged contractions, entered copy edits, and spent too much time thinking about when numbers should be written (four) and when they should be numbers (4).

Today apparently was the day to "mow" the grass at KIST. Usually this is done by hand. Teams of men with small scythes traverse the lawn and deftly trim the grass. But today it was done by a gas-powered weed whacker. The humid air carried the smell of cut grass up through my office window. It was a pleasant and familiar scent and it made me think of mowing the lawn back home in the summer.

I had an excellent Chinese meal for dinner at my favorite Kigali Chinese restaurant. The spicy tofu was better than usual. I then returned and did more editing. The next few weeks I will need to spend many hours at my desk, carefully entering final edits for the book.

The wind has picked up a little. Periodically the wind whistles through the trees. It's an unusual sound---it sounds cold and wintry. The lights of Kigali sparkle as usual. The thunder is gone.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I returned from Cairo Sunday morning and, to be honest, I felt miserable in every way. I had a cold and a stomach ache. I was exhausted from a long overnight flight (Cairo to Kigali with a plane change in Nairobi and stops in Khartoum and Bujumbura). I was sad to part with Doreen and missed home tremendously. I was not looking forward to the next three months.

I slept 14 of the next 24 hours, after which things started to look up. I was no longer exhausted, and my stomach and cold were much, much better. Things continued to look up the next few days as I got back into my routine here. I found myself taking surprising comfort in the familiar. I had a meal with friends at my favorite Chinese place. I went for a short run in the evening along my usual route. I saw colleagues in the Physics Department, said hello to the Dean, and greeted the staff at the guesthouse where I stay. My bed here is very comfortable and the nights are quiet.

It is, of course, so much easier starting teaching this term now that I have the previous semester's experience to draw on. I know my students, have a sense of how things are done, and I generally know what to expect from teaching here. I'm sure there are still surprises ahead. But I have a much better handle on things.

What's surprising to me, though, is how the familiarity of my little part of Kigali has helped me settle down and get back into a routine of sorts. It is not as if I understand Kigali---this is still a new and foreign and confusing place. And it is not as if Kigali or my room in the guesthouse feels like home. But it feels like something. Familiar. Comfortable, in a way. I have the places I go and the things I do.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back in Kigali

I am back in Kigali after nine days in Cairo with Doreen. I took an overnight flight and arrived "home" around 11:30am this morning. I spent much of the afternoon napping. I have a cold and some sort of mild but annoying stomach ailment. The overnight flight wore me down. I did not sleep much.

Cairo was fun. It is an amazing city. It's gigantic, energetic, and noisy. It was fun to wander and explore different neighborhoods. We also saw the pyramids, which were great. Most of all, it was great to spend time with Doreen: talking, wandering around, exploring, and sharing some good meals.

Cairo is a bustling and noisy place. It's a little overwhelming. Kigali is incredibly quiet by comparison. And today things seem even quieter than usual. I think the guesthouse is almost empty. It feels deserted. It is the last day of "spring" break at KIST. Classes start tomorrow, although my first class isn't until Tuesday.

I will be teaching only two classes next semester: Atomic & Molecular Physics and Mathematical Physics II. Both courses are for third-year physics majors. Each class will have 36 students. Right now I'm not particularly psyched to start teaching again, but once the term starts up I think I'll get more motivated.

It is odd to be back. On the one hand, Kigali does feel a little bit like a home of sorts---certainly more so than the hotel we were at in Cairo, which was fair at best. My bed here is comfortable and I have my own space. But on the other hand, I feel more acutely homesick than I have in a while. I think once I get into the rhythm of the semester and once I get rid of this cold/stomach illness, my outlook will be more positive.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Semester I is now over. I have graded all 240 exams. There is a cheating issue I need to deal with. And I am sure there will be more paperwork. There is always more paperwork. But so far as I am concerned, Semester I is done. I am also almost exactly at the half-way point of my time in Kigali. I have been in Rwanda for 107 days. In 109 days I will get on a plane and return home.

I have a flood of thoughts about my time here so far, but none of them seem to be fully formed. There is not a simple story to tell about Rwanda, Kigali, or KIST. Nor is there a simple way to sum up my time in Kigali so far. I have moments of confusion and contemplation about Rwanda, moments of personal introspection, and much of the time I'm too busy working to have any deep thoughts at all.

Tomorrow I depart for Cairo. Doreen is presently on her way there, flying over the Atlantic. If we're both on schedule, we will arrive within an our of each other. I am very much looking forward to decompressing and spending some time hanging out and exploring Cairo and environs.

Tonight I am on my balcony. It is nice and cool after a hot and dry day. Crickets and dogs provide a soundtrack. A half-moon is visible through the trees.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


The picture above is the building where I work. It is KIST III, also known as Mutabura block. This building houses all science faculty: the math, chemistry, physics, biology, and food science departments. My office is on the fourth floor on the opposite side of the building. Below is a picture of the KIST guesthouse, which is where I live. My room is on second floor. My balcony is on the far left, almost completely hidden by trees. The two photos are taken from the same spot, but facing in different directions. The guesthouse is, at most, 200 meters from the science building.

I have spent the last few days grading exams and copy-editing chapters of my book. It is monotonous, but I'm making good progress. The last two days have been unusually warm and dry. Tonight it is pleasantly cool. There is not much else to report. I had yogurt for breakfast. I had an amazing Indian meal for dinner. I am currently drinking a not amazing Rwandan beer. At least it is cold. Tomorrow I will wake up and do it all again.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I have now given the final exams for all three of my classes. All that is left is to grade the exams and enter the scores. My stack of grading is shown above. It's not as bad as it looks. Most students didn't fill up the entire booklet. And my co-teacher will grade half of the general physics exams. This is by far the largest class---190 students, the three largest bundles in the picture.

Nevertheless, I have a lot of grading ahead. Oh boy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Exam Logistics

I have given two out of my three final exams. The last one is tomorrow morning. The logistics of exam administration here is unlike anything I have seen back in the US. Even when I gave (and took) final exams in graduate school, it was nothing like it is here.

Exams are given at 9:00am, 2:00pm, and 5:30pm. We pick up the exams from the exam office. There is one in my building, and one on the other side of campus. In theory, the tests arrive 10-15 minutes before the exams start. They are driven oven from the main exam office in a white pickup truck upon which the KIST logo has been stenciled. Men carry the exams and many exam booklets into the office. I select the envelope that has my exams, take a sufficient number of booklets, and scurry to the room where my exam is held. Yesterday I had an exam at 2:00pm. The exams didn't arrive until 1:59pm. I wasn't too worried, and neither were the students.

The people who watch over the students are known as invigilators. This is a fantastic word. Apparently it is standard British English. It is not a term unique to Rwanda. Since I am the faculty member whose class was taking the exam, I am listed as the chief invigilator. There is also usually a another faculty member present, known as a secondary invigilator.

There is a fair amount of paperwork and signatures involved. There is an attendance sheet that all students must sign. In addition, students are issued an exam card, on which is some special number. They also have to write their special on the attendance sheet and the exam booklet. The chief and secondary invigilators sign the attendance sheet. There is an additional sheet that we both sign. This one just has the basic exam information and information about how many exam booklets we received.

The exam-taking itself is pretty typical. It is a room full of anxious students, writing in their exam books. I think my first two exams went pretty well, although I've not yet taken a close look at the students' work. I will likely start grading in earnest tomorrow afternoon. It will take me quite a few days to do it all.

Once the exams are done, I take all the exam booklets and the various signed forms back to the exam office. I then have to sign another piece of paper that says I am taking the exam booklets to grade. I had large stacks of booklets to carry today. The person working in the exam office expertly tied them into bundles with twine. The stacks are now sitting in my office, waiting to be graded.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Three Months+

It's been a little while since I've posted, so an update is in order. It has been a fairly quiet several days. Last week was the first week of exams. But all my exams are next week: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So soon I will have many, many exams to grade. I'm certainly not looking forward to it, but somehow I'm not dreading it, either. It is what it is. I'll do it and be done with it.

I am also in the midst of the final flurry of work on my book. I have gotten all the copy-edits from my publisher. They are not too extensive. I am also doing a read-through and copy-edit of my own. I think I will finish this in a few days. I will then begin entering all the edits. This should be straightforward. The only part I'm a little worried about it the figures. I think that many will need to be slightly re-sized, although I'm not quite sure how many yet. This process isn't too difficult, but it has the potential to be very time consuming. I also may need to mess with the photographs some. There are also some typesetting details that I will need to tend to. The final main task for the book is to make an index. I think won't be too difficult, but it will take some time. The manuscript is due back to the publisher on April 13. I have 39 days.

Wednesday I went to a football match between the Rwandan and Nigerian national teams. It was a qualifying match for the African Cup of Nations. Rwanda earned a 0-0 tie. This was a bit of an upset, as Nigeria was heavily favored. The game was fun to watch and it was a fascinating experience. There were surprisingly few foreigners at the game. I'd like to see another match sometime.

Today began with several hours of steady rain. It cleared up in the afternoon, but remained cool. I doubt it got warmer than 75. I went for a nice evening run. The streets were surprisingly empty, although there were more cars than usual parked by the church.

The days ahead will hold much editing and much grading. I plan on doing little else, aside from eating and exercising. Classes have been over for two weeks, and there are three more weeks before the second semester starts. I have settled into a dull and solitary but fairly satisfying routine. I work a lot, exercise, cook simple meals at home and occasionally go out for Indian or Chinese food.

I have now been in Rwanda for over three months. And I will return home in almost exactly four months. The crickets chirp and I hear a radio and dogs barking half-heartedly in the distance. A little while ago a plane took off. I can see more lights on than usual in the science building.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mysteries and Mash-ups

There seems to be a growing shortage of Rwandan milk and cheese. Rwanda produces gouda in large quantities. I've tried it, and it's ok. I decided last week to buy a wheel so I could make cheese sandwiches for lunch and afternoon snacks. I went to the store, and to my amazement, I found no Rwandan cheese. This was very odd, since usually there are stacks and stacks of mediocre Rwandan gouda. Not this time. There was Kenyan and Ugandan cheese, and even some from Holland. But it was all too expensive---about twice as much as I wanted to pay.

Rwanda milk is also disappearing. I usually buy Inyange milk, a local Rwandan producer. I haven't seen any Inyange milk for almost two weeks, except for some small containers of skim milk. (Almost all milk here is the ultra-pasteurised stuff, solid in sealed cardboard containers.) The last time I bought milk I had to buy a Ugandan brand. There does not seem to be a shortage of Rwandan yogurt, however. I asked at a store the other day what was going on with milk, and one of the store owners said that there weren't any milk shipments, and he didn't know why. I read on a blog a brief mention of a "cheese strike." But that is all I know. Searching online reveals that last week there was a government report about how milk can help fight malnutrition. There is no other word about disappearing cheese and milk, but this is not surprising. There is not much news here.

Early afternoon yesterday I went to grab a moto to go to a hotel where I like to work. A group of street kids appeared and greeted me enthusiastically. This is not that unusual, but it is not often that I see street kids in my neighborhood. As I was negotiating the fare with the moto driver, I realized what was going on: the kids had a little puppy that they were trying to sell me. It was quite small, and looked generically beige. It seemed to be ok. I think they wanted 2000 RwF for it. (This is about $4.) The puppy had some sort of a colorful homemade leash on it. I declined the offer and motoed away.

Where did the kids get the dog? I'm guessing that they stole it. The leash didn't look like something they would make. Street kids here are not at all menacing. It is somewhat hard to picture them stealing a puppy. The kids seemed friendly and not desperate. Maybe they weren't street kids, but were just kids who lived in the neighborhood? Seems unlikely. They should have been in school. Should I have purchased the puppy and tried to find it a home? What was the puppy's fate? If I bought it, would I just be encouraging puppy theft? And what would I do with the dog, anyway? I haven't seen the kids since.

Yesterday I had a burrito (of sorts) and pasta salad for dinner. (I was recently reminded, while watching a video of a talk given in Maine about geology in Peru, that "burrito" means little donkey in Spanish.) The burrito and pasta salad came from a grocery store called La Sierra. It is near downtown and is run by Indians. The burrito was good. It had cheese in it. The pasta salad wasn't bad, either.

When I run I go past a large church. There are often choir groups practicing outside. I am impressed that different groups congregate fairly close to each other---certainly within earshot---and sing different songs. It makes for nice listening as I plod by. From my balcony I can hear the calls to prayer from the local mosque. Sometimes two calls for prayer occur at the same time, I presume from two different mosques. It is not as sonorous as the choir groups, but it is interesting to listen to nevertheless.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Solitary Sunday

It has been a solitary Sunday for me in Kigali. I have said hello to the guards at the university gate as I left and then returned from a 5-km run in the neighborhood. And I said hello to two of my students I happened to pass in the science building. That was it. When Doreen is traveling, a not infrequent occurrence, Sundays at home are often solitary as well. So something about the rhythm and quietness of the day reminded me of home.

Perhaps it was the weather. In the early afternoon the grey skies darkened a little and there was a steady rain for an hour or two. There was thunder and lightning, but surprisingly little wind. It wasn't a storm by any means. The rain was incongruously gentle given the dramatic thunder. But it was cold, at least by Kigali standards. The temperature dropped to 61, but it felt much colder. I was chilly while I read on the balcony, but I delayed putting on another layer, since being a little cold was making me pleasantly nostalgic for home.

It was a nice enough weekend, but not as productive as I had hoped. Saturday I went to dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. I had some good eggplant under a thin crescent moon, fuzzed out in the cloudy Kigali sky. This upcoming week is the first of the two-week exam period here. All of my exams are in the second week, so I my week is pleasantly unscheduled. I have one meeting with my Statistical Physics students, but other than that my week is open. I need to focus and use the time wisely. There is a lot of stuff I want to get done, including prepping for next semester's classes.

Things move along here. Things are sometimes absurd, sometimes annoying, most of the time just fine, and sometimes things just don't make sense. As an example of the latter, a few days ago someone came and changed all the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures in the upper hallway. I don't know why this happened, since the bulbs seemed fine to me, and almost nobody spends time in the hallway. But the hallway is now blindingly bright. It might be the most well-lit space in all of Kigali. Seriously. I can't think of any place brighter except for Nakumatt, the big grocery/department store downtown. Our kitchen, however, could use some new high-power bulbs. It's a little dark in the kitchen at night. And people actually use the kitchen. To cook and stuff. But no new lights for the kitchen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

General Physics

One of the classes I taught this semester is Phy 3114, General Physics. This class is taken by all first-year students in Applied Biology, Applied Chemistry, and Food Science & Technology. There were 195 students in the class. I gave a two-hour lecture once a week in a large lecture hall. There was also a weekly two-hour "tutorial" session. The students were divided by major, so each tutorial session had only around 60 students. I didn't do the tutorials; other instructors led them. Once a week there was a five-hour lab session. We divided the class into eight groups of approximately 25. Each week we did a 1.25 hour lab with four of the groups. Over the term each student did four labs.
The lectures were held in an auditorium that seats around 400. Above is a picture I took of the room before the last class while students were still filing in. Typically the room ends up around half fill. Attendance was low on this day, however, perhaps since it was the last day of the term. I stand on the stage and write in large letters on the two small blackboards. The first half of the term there was only one blackboard in the room, which posed a bit of a challenge. I was happy when the second blackboard appeared.
This picture was taken from the front of the classroom--i.e., onstage---right before I ended the last lecture. One of the blackboards is just visible on the left of the picture. I would guess that only 75% of the students were there that day. Usually the front part of the class is more densely packed.

Teaching General Physics was incredibly challenging. It is hard to teach 190 students. It is impossible to get to know so many students individually, so the class had more of an impersonal feel than I would have liked. Another instructor and I shared grading responsibilities, but grading still took an incredible amount of time. I am not looking forward to grading the finals.

There were other challenges, too. Most of the students do not have good English skills. This is not their fault. They simply don't have much experience learning in English. Rwanda technically switched from French to English instruction in high schools and higher education several years ago. But such a transformation does not happen overnight. My sense is that my general physics students have learned in high school in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English, and French. They certainly haven't had a foreign instructor with an American accent before.

I am impressed with how the students seemed undeterred by this. By and large, they kept coming to class. There were a handful who consistently asked good and helpful questions. I think their comprehension improved over the eleven weeks, and I also think I got a little better at figuring out how to make myself understood. They never exactly laughed at my jokes. Humor is probably one of the hardest things to comprehend in an unfamiliar language. But I was able to get them to laugh with/at me, as I acted out physics scenarios, pushing on imaginary boxes, kicking things across the stage, throwing erasers, and so on. When I drew a stick figure of a lion (it was part of an analogy to explain surface tension) it led to much laughter and a smattering of applause.

My sense is that the students' preparation is uneven. Most have had quite a bit of mathematics---more than the typical U.S. student. But their problem-solving skills are not strong. I think students do a great deal of rote learning here. On the midterm I asked them to solve some problems they hadn't seen before. The students did not do well. I may have mis-calculated and made things too difficult. I suspect that many students had never been asked to do something like that on a test before.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the course was that I felt there was just no way to convey to students the awesomeness and fun of science. In part this is because of the language barrier; it was just too difficult to explain certain things. But also the format of the course---almost 200 people in one room for just two hours ever week, needing to get through a large list of topics---leaves little opportunity for fun or exploration. I hope that at some time during their careers at KIST my General Physics students get a sense of how fun and interesting science can be.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trajectory of a Thursday

I stayed up late the night before, skype-chatting with Doreen as she took the bus to Boston on her way to Kuala Lumpur via Boston, New York and Seoul. Kigali is seven hours ahead of the east coast of the US. So when I was chatting with her past midnight here it was early evening there.

I awoke Thursday morning, and as usual I made a cup of strong coffee downstairs and took it up to my balcony. I turned on the computer and checked mail and ate my breakfast. Breakfasts here are either plain yogurt, or one or two rolls with butter. Today was a roll day. They weren't bad. I bought them the evening before at Nakumatt downtown. Tomorrow I will also have rolls, but they won't be as fresh. Sometimes on yogurt days I put a spoonful of jam in the yogurt. Sometimes I don't. It depends on my mood.

It was cool and gloomy this morning. It was probably cold for Rwandans, but I liked it. It was cloudy and dark, almost like it was twilight. The skies continued to darken. It started to rain. It got cooler and darker. The rain intensity increased. And increased some more. Soon sheets of rain were falling from the sky. The sound of the rain on my metal roof and the metal roofs in the neighborhood was intense. The drainage gullies around the house quickly filled to overflowing.

I had long since retreated inside. It was too wet on the balcony. It was dark inside. The air was cool, and the sound of the rain echoed. I watched the rain fall and did some work. I enjoyed the dark, rainy, ambiance. But then I realized that the roof was leaking a little. Onto my bed. I quickly put a towel where the water dripping. I used a lavender-colored towel with teddy bears on it that I bought here a few months ago. I like it.

I then went downstairs to get a pot to catch the water. I discovered that the hallway on the second floor was covered with water. I think it had blown in under a door from one of the balconies. I'm not sure. The guest house has cement floors, so water is not a big deal. I suspect it is a common occurrence.

The rain eventually stopped. I had some yogurt (with jam) for lunch, and went to my office. It is "revision week" here. In practice, this seems to be the time when students spend time checking their scores, arguing for more points, and mysteriously producing homework assignments that they hadn't handed in earlier in the term. I feel like I spent a few hours getting lied to by a succession of students. One case was particularly egregious; he produced an impressive string of mistruths. I took no pleasure in pointing them out to him.

It is one thing to copy over someone's written work. I suppose it is possible that in the act of copying one might learn something. But taking a series of lab assignments (written up as a word document), and then simply deleting your friend's name and adding yours, does not strike me as a way to learn anything. This seems to be how many students get by. It is frustrating, and I don't like being lied to. But it also seems to be a fairly standard practice here. Students stick together. Failing can have bad consequences and I think makes all students uncomfortable. And then there is the fact that many students, through little or no fault of their own, simply may not have the background to complete the degree program they have been admitted to. So if a lot of students get low but passing grades, maybe this is a less awkward outcome than the alternative. I don't know. I am trying to go with the flow and figure out how things are done here.

In any event, the afternoon was not entirely filled with less-than-believable stories about suddenly discovered lab assignments. I also talked to some students who had come by with good questions on some of the review problems I assigned. I got some other work done as well. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun came out after all the rain. It was cool and there were purple-grey clouds in the sky.

A little before six I got an email from my copy-editor at Oxford, the main thrust of which was that almost all the contractions in my book had to do. No "I'm", "let's", "I'll", "don't", etc. All too informal for Oxford. It is probably good advice, although I'll also be sad to see them go. Removing them from the draft will be one of my many final editing tasks to look forward to in the next month.

I finally extracted myself from the office and returned to my room. I read for a little bit and then met two people for dinner. They are both professors from the UK who are here for two weeks lecturing in a new masters in traffic engineering program. I like them both a lot. They are interesting, smart, and I enjoy sharing perspectives on education and scholarship in Rwanda, the UK, and elsewhere. We had an excellent Indian meal at a very pleasant restaurant. Sadly, the two Brits are leaving on Saturday.

I am now again on my balcony. There is a puddle of water from all the rain in the morning. I have just been emailing with Doreen who is now in Seoul---seven hours later than me. It is a typically cool Kigali evening. Crickets chirp and the lights on the hills twinkle. I am tired. I will soon go inside, do some reading, and go to sleep. Tomorrow I will have rolls for breakfast.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Crickets and Mondays

My internet connection has been spotty the last few days. Apparently there is a problem with an undersea cable between Djibouti and Port Sudan. Hard to imagine this will get fixed anytime soon. Nevertheless, the connection is still pretty decent. It is hard to stream video, but most everything else still works, albeit at reduced speeds.

Last night I was skyping with Doreen. As usual, I was on my balcony. Crickets were loudly serenading me. I could hear an echo of the crickets coming back to me via skype. The delay was about four seconds. It was slightly distracting. And then I stopped and thought about it. The sound of a cricket chirping in Kigali is picked up by my microphone. It travels approximately 11,000 km to my home in Maine. The sound is played on Doreen's speakers. Doreen's microphone picks up the cricket sounds and transmits it to me, back in Kigali 11,000 km away. The entire process took around 4 seconds. So the signal traveled at 5500 km/s, or about 1.8 % of the speed of light. This is difficult to fathom.

In other Kigali news, I seem to be having a string of bad Mondays. Today hasn't been as bad as a few previous Mondays, but it has still been somewhat annoying. I've done a lot of work the last two days, the majority of which seems pointless. I have done lots of grading of labs and homework assignments the last few days. More than three quarters of my general physics students still do not know the difference between precision and accuracy. It is clear that they haven't encountered these ideas before, and that the language barrier does not help.

I would estimate that around half of my computational physics students do essentially no work on their own, but instead get solutions to problems from other students. This is a common practice here and is not necessarily viewed as dishonest by everyone. I will structure things differently next term to minimize this. (There will be a lot more quizzes and less homework. I don't prefer teaching this way, but I don't see that I have a choice.)

A highlight of the day was a tasty, quick Indian meal for dinner. I was going to cook at home, but the kitchen was in heavy use so I zipped downtown and had a nice veg thali for a little over five dollars. It was definitely worth it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I'm done! Well, not really. But I taught my last class of the term today. Next week is a "revision week," when students prepare for their exams. Then there are two weeks of exams. Then there's a two-week break/marking period. So while I have a lot of work to do the next five weeks still---I'm teaching around 240 total students this term, so grading is no small task---I actually feel like I have time to do it.

I will have time for some other work, too. I hope to digest and process some thoughts and observations and post some more in-depth entries on this blog. If there is anything you particularly want me to write about, let me know in the comments and maybe I'll be able to do so.

As usual, I am writing this from my balcony. It is pleasant and there is a light breeze from the south. Crickets and other chirping insects predominate the soundscape, but I hear a faint radio, some distant cars, and the murmerings of students as they study outside the science building.

I am exhausted, but mostly in a good way. It has been a long and, at times, difficult eleven weeks. I survived. Teaching generally went well, although some things went a lot better than others. I will make a few adjustments next semester. I will also only have 72 total students. This is still a lot, but it's a lot better than 240.

I went for a hilly run in early evening, and it was a bit of a struggle. I then went to my favorite Chinese restaurant and had some great spicy tofu. It was very spicy---more spicy than anything I've eaten in quite a while. I had a very cold beer. The coldness partially makes up for the beer's mediocrity. And they brought me Chinese-style peanuts, which I take pleasure in eating with chopsticks. Eating peanuts with chopsticks requires focus and a gentle touch. It is almost meditative. I only dropped one the entire meal.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Words for the Day

Invigilator. This is the term used here for exam proctors: people who keep watch over students while an exam is ongoing to ensure that they don't cheat. I gather that this is a British term. I had never heard of it before. I will be the main invigilator for my exams. I may have a second invigilator assigned to my exams as well. It is unclear if I will be a secondary invigilator for another staff member, but if asked, I will serve.

Dolorimeter. This is an instrument used to measure pain threshold. I found mention of it when I was looking through an intro physics text. The dolorimeter I read about exerts a pressure on ones skin. (It was an end-of-chapter exercise in a chapter about pressure.) Apparently there are other types of dolorimeters, as well.

The root of the term is the Latin word dolor (doloris), whose first definition is pain, ache, or hurt. The second definition is grief, sorrow, or anguish. (Why do people name their daughters Dolores?) Anyway, it was the second definition that came to mind when I first saw the physics problem: I imagined a device capable of measuring someones sadness.

Miscellaneous Updates and Things

Sunday night. I sit on my balcony, finishing a Kenyan beer. I will go to sleep soon. The lights in the science building are off, so there is a black void in my vista where usually there are lights from the stairwells and the ground-level rooms, which students often use for nighttime studying.

The weather is slowly starting to change. The rains are not yet back, but I sense that they are immanent. Wednesday it rained lightly for a few minutes in the morning. It did the same today, and I heard peals of distant thunder in the afternoon.

There is one week of classes left. It is hard to believe the term is almost over. I think classes are ending up pretty well. I am a little behind in Statistical Physics. The other two are right on track. I worry about my General Physics students, however. They did by and large quite poorly on their midterm exam. I think they are not used to an exam on which they have to solve problems they haven't seen before. I hope they are not too disheartened by their scores.

This week I went for two excellent runs. They were neither long nor fast, but by my standards they were quite good. In my run on Tuesday I ended up running for a few miles with a guy who graduated from KIST a few years ago. We both pushed each other, especially as we were running up a long hill. It was the best run I've had in a very long time.

Today I played ultimate frisbee for the first time in Kigali. It was a fun game, and I hope to make it a part of my regular routine. I hadn't gone before since I had been super busy and also pretty sick for a while. But my workload, while still intense, has lightened some and my health is back, so I'm looking forward to being more active.

My main mode of transport is taking taxi motos. These are small motorcycles that zip around the city. It is not the safest form of transport, but so far it hasn't been too frightening. Twice I have been on motos that ran out of gas. I gather that this is a not unusual occurrence. Thursday I was on a short moto ride into town and I noticed that the driver was eating corn on the cob. While driving.

It is later than I want it to be. I should wind down and get to sleep. A big week of work lies ahead.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I am Mulder. I am Scully

Warning: This post is deliberately somewhat oblique. It might not make complete sense, especially if you are unfamiliar with the X-files.

The last 4-5 weeks have been weird. Hard-to-describe weird. But yesterday right before I went for a run, something clicked and I have a new way of thinking about what is going on: I am in an X-files episode. Perhaps more than one episode. There has been a somewhat grisly medical mystery that has been solved by science. There are aliens, of a sort, although they are leaving the scene. And there is mystery, intrigue, and shifting and uncertain alliances.

The medical mystery was debilitating and uncomfortable. The initial mystery was solved, but the solution was false. The malady returned in force, in a way that contradicted the original diagnosis. More doctors, and science soon triumphed. It was a highly toxic little bug. Well known to science---and to East Africans---but not well known to me. And extremely toxic.

Now I am in the midst of a different and trickier sort of intrigue. This much is known. My department chair, a friend and much-admired colleague, resigned Monday morning. By Tuesday he was back home in Kenya. The same morning the head of Chemistry resigned as well. What is not fully known is why they left. And will anyone else leave? I sense tension and shifting alliances. I have several informants. Something is going on, that's sure. I am, at most, a very minor player in what is unfolding. But it will be interesting.

Mulder had Scully, and Scully had Mulder. But I am alone here. So I must be both. Mulder brought intuition and instinct to the partnership. Scully, science and rationality. As often pointed out, one of the interesting things about the duo is that Scully possesses the traits that are typically thought of as masculine, whereas Mulder's traits are perhaps gendered feminine. Regardless, the two make a good combination.

So I must try to summon up the best of Mulder and Scully to continue to navigate unknown and possibly turbulent waters. I have survived the mysterious toxic insects. And I will, of course, survive whatever is to come. But a combination of intuition and rationality will likely serve me well in the months ahead.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Clouds but no rain

My main activity the last few days has been grading. I've graded about 140 exams. I have almost as many yet to go. So there is not much exciting to report from the weekend. There will probably not be much exciting to report from the week.

The weather the last month or so has been dry. I don't think it's rained since early January. It has also been unusually hot. Highs have been in the upper 80's and perhaps occasionally it has hit 90. Rwandans have been commenting on the unusual heat. It hasn't been oppressive or terrible, but in the mid-afternoon sun it is pretty intense. The air has been fairly dusty and hazy, and the vibrancy of the greenery has been turned down a few notches.

The last few weeks have reminded me of June in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are often clouds in the sky. Sometimes big clouds that surely have rain in them. They slide across the city in the afternoon, providing some shade, but they refuse to give up their rain. It is hard not to look longingly at them, and also resent them a little for not providing any water. It will be nice when the rains return. They help cool things off and they keep the dust down.

There are just two weeks to go in the term. I have a mind-boggling amount of work to do -- mostly grading -- in the next two weeks. I am choosing (most of the time) to view it as humorous and slightly absurd, as opposed to annoying or soul-crushing. Nevertheless, it is a bit of a grind, to say the least.

It is a little after 1:30, and as usual I am writing this from my balcony. A dog is yapping incessantly a few blocks away, and his yelps are met by other yelps, further in the distance. A radio is playing faintly over by the science building. A new dog, back to my right, just joined the dog chorus. Fortunately they aren't very loud. A loud plane just took off from the airport several miles to the east. It fades rapidly and the sounds of the dogs and crickets re-emerge.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Two Months

It was two months and one day ago that I left home for Kigali. The first two months here have been fun, interesting, intense and challengeing---both in ways that I expected and ways that were totally unexpected. In honor of the milestone, here's a list of things I like about Kigali and a list of things from home that I miss. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means. It's some of the first things that come to mind as I write this late at night on my balcony.

Some stuff I like about Kigali:
  • My new colleagues in the physics department. My department chair and my office mate have been especially kind, supportive, and friendly. They've made me feel welcome here and have been tremendously helpful.
  • One of things I was looking forward to about teaching here was being able to really dig into some physics topics I don't get to teach back home. I've certainly gotten this out of my statistical physics class. I like statistical physics a lot and it's been really fun to teach it and to think about the subject in new ways. The book I'm teaching from is fantastic.
  • I am grateful for my students' patience as I figure out how things are done here. I am sure it is not always easy to have a professor from far away with a funny accent. I have especially enjoyed getting to know the students in my statistical mechanics class. (This class has only 9 students, whereas my other classes are 44 and 196. So it's hard to get to know the students in those classes, unfortunately.) My statistical mechanics students ask excellent questions and are patient when we have trouble understanding each other. They are a sharp group of students that are fun to work with.
  • Kigali itself is a very pleasant place. I like the city a lot, especially at night. As I've remarked frequently, the nights here are perfect: not hot, not cold. It is pretty easy and inexpensive to get around, it is very safe, and it generally has a nice, relaxed feel.
  • There is some great food in Kigali: amazing Chinese food and very good Indian and Ethiopian. I like that there are a few places that I go to semi-regularly that are starting to become part of my routine.

Some stuff I miss from home:
  • It goes without saying that I miss Doreen. It is hard being in a new and sometimes challenging environment when my best friend is so far away.
  • My cats. I miss them tremendously. They are a great distraction from life and are a source of companionship and entertainment. In general, I miss a number of activities that constitute down time---things that help me relax or use different parts of my brain than teaching and doing physics.
  • Cooking. I like cooking a lot. I like both making some standard dishes that I have perfected over the years and also trying out new things. Cooking is fun and relaxing for me. I miss cooking in our nice kitchen with good music turned up loud.
  • The food here in Kigali ranges from good to amazing. Nevertheless, there are some foods that I miss. The beer here is not very good. I miss good, hoppy, flavorful but not sweet beers. I've had some good salads here, but I miss big interesting salads like I make at home. I also miss whole-grain/wholesome sorts of foods: brown rice, veggie stews, good whole wheat bread, etc.
  • Watching hockey games. When at home I watch as many New York Rangers games as my schedule permits. It is fun watching games; I can't really explain it, but I like it a lot. It is another activity that is mental downtime; it is not very intellectually demanding to watch hockey. Fun and interesting and exciting, yes. Intellectually challenging, not exactly. The Rangers are having their best season (so far) in quite a long time. It disappointing that I am missing the season, although I do get to see highlight of the games via the internet.
I am unwinding after a long Sunday of work. I am still behind, but less so. This upcoming week is week 9 of 11. Just three weeks to go. Wednesday is a holiday, so I'm viewing this week as two mini two-day weeks.

It is a darker night than usual and the sky has a milky character to it. It must be hazy. I can't see any stars. A radio plays in the distance and, as usual, the crickets are chirping. But tonight seems a little quieter than usual, as well. The air is still.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where I live. Where I work.

It is a pleasant Friday evening in Kigali. I don't quite have the energy to write much, so I thought would post some pictures I took a little a while ago.
The picture above is of my room at the guesthouse of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. The room is small, but it's all the space I need. The bed is quite comfy and firm. In addition to the main room there is a bathroom and a small entryway in which there is a wardrobe in which I keep my clothes and some other stuff.
This is a picture of my bathroom. But you probably figured that out. It takes a little while for the water to get hot, but once it does, there is plenty of hot water and the water pressure is pretty good. I didn't like getting out of a shower and standing on tile, so a few weeks ago I got a towel to use as a bathmat. It is light blue/purplish and has teddy bears on it.
The highlight of my living quarters is definitely my balcony. I do most of my work outside on this plastic table. It is where I am now as I write this. There are some trees in the way, but it has nice views to the east and south. Evenings are very pleasant here, so the balcony is a great place to work. Even at midday, the balcony is shaded and usually quite nice.
This is my office. It is on the fourth floor of the KIST III building, which houses the Faculty of Science. The building is about 200 meters from the guesthouse. There is not too much in my office. There are two desks, one for me and one for my office mate. There is a table and a narrow bookcase that are not in the picture.
I like my office. When I open the window there is almost always a nice breeze. And the view is great. This picture is looking down. One can see the parking lot for my building and one of the main entrances to KIST. It is unusual that it is so empty. I think I took this picture on New Year's day when nobody was around. Usually there would be students and a few cars in this scene.
This is a view from my office window looking out to the east. I get a great view of the city toward the airport. Sometimes I can see storms sweeping across the valley. Of late it has been dry and the view is somewhat hazy.

Most weeks I spend around 16 hours teaching or in lab. I go shopping a few times a week and eat out a couple of times as well. But aside from that, I spend the vast majority of my time either sleeping in my bed, or working on the balcony or in the office. I am getting to know these spaces quite well. It is late, and so I will soon make my nightly transition from balcony to bed. Tomorrow morning I will do it in reverse. After I awake I make a cup of coffee downstairs in the kitchen and then have breakfast and coffee on the balcony as I begin a new day.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


My mantra for this week, and for the weeks ahead:

done is better than perfect.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese Food

Finally a picture. And it's of Chinese food. I'm sure this will disappoint and possibly annoy some readers of this blog. I know, you want gorilla pictures, or pictures of Kigali or the university I'm at or something. I have some of those, and I'll post those later. But I like the idea of having my first Kigali picture be of Chinese food. There are many reasons. Let me explain.

Chinese food is comfort food for me. I grew up eating Chinese food in New York City. We would occasionally eat out, but quite commonly order it in. Sometimes I would go out for some quick Chinese during lunch when I was in high school. I'm not sure what it is, but Chinese food almost always is satisfying and comforting. Even "bad" Chinese food is good. Some people feel this way about macaroni and cheese, or maybe pizza. For me, it's Chinese food. I don't know that I have "roots" in any normal sense. But if I do, Chinese food is part of them.

So Chinese food is a connection to comfort and home. I also feel a connection between China and my work here in Kigali. I had essentially no experience working internationally, and only modest international travel experience, when in 2004 I was invited to lecture at an interdisciplinary, international program in China. It went well, and I had a great time. I lectured again the next year, and then was co-director of the program for three years. It was hard work, but incredibly satisfying and rewarding. I came to like China a lot. When the program faded away due to lack of funding, I felt a surprising void. I had gone to China every summer from 2004 - 2009. The summer of 2010 felt a little empty. It was time to figure out what the next adventure would be.

So I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship. In my application I discussed in some detail my experiences in China. And a colleague from China, the professor who co-directed the program with me, kindly wrote a letter of recommendation. So it was in many ways my work and experiences in China that led me to where I am now: on a balcony in Kigali, overwhelmed but mostly surviving, teaching far too many students, and learning a lot by being in a new and different place. So some Chinese food seems like a fine image for this blog.

And it's really good Chinese food, no less. I found an awesome restaurant, Tangren. The food is excellent. They have fish-flavored eggplant, which is the dish pictured above. Fish-flavored eggplant, which doesn't have any fish in it, is eggplant cooked with lots of chili, garlic and ginger, and also some vinegar and sugar. This gives it a tart and tangy taste to go with the sweetness of the sugar and eggplant, together with a big spice kick from the chili and ginger. It is a great combination. I ate it all the time in Beijing. But I haven't found it outside of the China. Until now. It is awesome.

Today is the Chinese New Year. It is now the Year of the Dragon. This is supposed to be a good sign; the Dragon is the luckiest year. I don't know that I believe in omens like this. But it is hard not to like the idea of a lucky or auspicious year. The last year hasn't been bad, but it has been challenging. Lots of hard work. Maybe too much. So I am happy to welcome a new year with a post about Chinese food in Kigali, Beijing and New York.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Maybe not the Midpoint

In my last entry I noted that I had passed the midpoint of the term. Maybe not. I have been told repeatedly that the semester was ten weeks long. But last night I did some subtraction---end date minus start date---and came up with eleven weeks. I asked my officemate and he also concluded that the term is actually eleven weeks. I have queried my department chair and not heard back. So I'm not sure exactly how much longer the semester will go.

I usually write blog entries from the balcony outside my room, but today I am in my office. It is a nice night and my office has a great view to the east. The not-quite-full moon is rising higher. It is white now. Earlier it was a big orange smudge against the Kigali sky.

This weekend will be the weekend of writing exams. I am teaching three classes (one with a co-teacher), and I have to write my final exams for all three. Why so soon? They need to get looked at by the department and then sent to an external examiner for further review. The former is largely pro forma. I'm not sure about the role of the external examiner. He or she is supposed to look over the questions and see if they adequately span the syllabus. I don't know that the external examiners intervene too heavily, and likely they wouldn't with me since I am a foreign visitor with a PhD, but I'm really not sure.

Regardless, I need to write all three exams and get them to my department chair sometime Monday. I also need to write solutions and the grading scheme. And as if that's not enough, I also need to do the same for three supplementary exams. These are exams that are given as a second chance to students who fail the first exam. Failing is not that unusual here, so it is highly likely that my supplementary exams will be needed.

I also have midterms to grade for two of my classes. One class has 44, the other 196. That will be the fun tasks I'll turn to after the final exams are written. Work seems to be never-ending, and now I don't even know when the term ends. I think once I get through the crush of writing finals and grading midterms things will get a little better. At least I hope so.

I had dinner tonight at the Shake & Sip It is a little place opposite the UTC building downtown. It is sort of a cross between a burger place and Indian snack bar. I like it a lot. I get an "aloo pindi burger," which is a veggie burger with some sort of Indian spices. It's quite good. It comes with some good fries (chips as they're called here) and the burger has sautéed onions along with lettuce and tomato. It's a tasty and satisfying meal for just 2000 RFw, which is $3.33. Not bad. They have a bunch of other veg Indian dishes that I am tempted by, but the aloo burger pleases me so much that I haven't ever decided to try something else.

I will wrap up this entry and turn my attention to a few quick tasks I hope to complete tonight before sleep. I should get to bed early, since tomorrow I have labs from 8am - 1pm. Four different lab groups, totalling almost 100 students, will test Hooke's law.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Tomorrow is the sixth week of the ten-week term. So we are at the halfway point, at least as far as classes go. Classes are followed by a week-long study period and two weeks of exams. It is hard to believe that the first semester's classes are half-done.

I spent the weekend working. I had a bunch of COA work that I should have finished long ago that I finally finished. And I did some class preparation and wrote the midterm exam for my huge general physics class. It was a pretty dull weekend. I did very little beside work and sleep. I am fighting a cold, and there has been a lot of haze and smog in the city the last few days, which isn't helping. Judging by the coughs and sneezes I heard in my classes last week, I'm not the only one struggling with a cold.

The highlight of the weekend undoubtedly was finding an amazing Chinese restaurant, Tangren. It is a little far from where I am in Kigali, but it is not too difficult to get there. I had a spicy eggplant dish that was fantastic. I know the dish by the name "fish-flavored eggplant." I ate it frequently when I was in China. The dish doesn't have fish in it, but is supposed to flavored as if it has fish in it. It is spicy with lots of ginger and garlic.

The eggplant at Tangren was perfect. Moist and sweet, but cooked so it was a little crispy, too. Pleasantly spicy but not overwhelming. It was amazing. I've never had a good version of this dish outside of China. Until now. When I was done I found the Chinese guy who appeared to be helping run the place and I tried to explain to him how good the eggplant was and how happy it made me. I tried a few words of Mandarin and also French. He spoke no English. I don't think I got across much of what I was trying to say, but I am confident that he understood that I was pleased.

It is a little past 1:00am and I am on my balcony. I should be asleep, but I was working late writing the midterm exam. I am now unwinding with a beer. The night is quiet, although there are occasional choruses of barking dogs. I can hear crickets and the distant hum of a propeller plane at the airport.

There is much work ahead. I will have enormous amounts of grading the next few weeks, and I have more than a few letters of recommendation to write. If I can keep this momentum going for another week I'll be ok. I am buoyed by the knowledge that there is amazingly good eggplant a 15-minute moto ride away.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Exams and Tests, Then and Now

I gave a midterm exam. It was timed (one hour and 45 min) and students could not use notes. Midterms here are called CATs. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with cats, but instead stands for Continuous Assessment Test. The idea is that it is part of the assessment that goes on during the term as opposed to the final. Final exams count for 60% of students' final grades here. CATs, which include homework assignments as well as midterms, make up the rest.

I haven't given an exam like this since the 1990's. I have never given such a test at College of the Atlantic, my home institution. Such tests have never made sense given my learning goals for my courses. I want students to learn to work carefully and deliberately, to consult their own notes, and to be able to figure things out by reading books. All of these skills are penalised on timed, closed-notes tests. Challenging homework assignments and open-notes tests have always made more sense to me.

I am writing this while I sit in the front of the classroom while 44 students take my midterm. (I am jotting this down on a note pad. I typed in into the blog two days later.) I fear I made the exam too short and/or easy. Halfway through the allotted time and a few people are already done. It is sometimes difficult for me to predict what students will find hard and how long assignments will take. I maybe have miscalculated. I am still getting to know students here and am learning their strengths and weaknesses.

Except for one class that I taught while in grad school, the last time I wrote and gave timed, in-class tests was when I taught high school math and physics from 1991-93. I tried to make tests entertaining. I would include jokes sometimes and also pictures and cartoons. This was before the world wide web, so my source of illustrations was usually the Village Voice, to which I had a subscription.

When giving a test in class, there is the question of what to do in class when the students are taking the test. Today I spent a while fretting and revising my far-too-long to-do list, and then I started writing this. My writing has been interrupted a few times by students raising their hands with questions. I then try and walk to their desks, which is not an easy task since the room is packed full with desks and students. There is little room in which to manoeuvre.

When teaching high school I would usually bring a book to read. One of my closest friends, an English teacher, encouraged me to do so, arguing that it set a good example for the students. I didn't need much encouraging. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

In the spring of 1993, my last year teaching high school, I remember heading to my classroom to give a test and, needing something to read, I grabbed my Norton Anthology of Poetry. I had it from my tenth grade poetry class. Now I was bringing it to read while tenth graders took a physical science test.

I gave out the test and flipped through the book and landed on "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. Somehow I had never seen the poem before. I was just 23. I started reading and was captivated. It is hard to explain the feeling I had encountering---experiencing---Howl for the first time in a room full of tenth grade boys, wearing ties and dutifully taking a physics test. It was one of those surreal moments where things are suddenly so unexpectedly strange and awesome that reality seems to crackle and buzz. I read line after line and kept looking up at my students. I felt almost awkward reading such a poem in their presence, and yet somehow it seemed perfect.

And so I look up now at my physics students. Two-thirds of the time is up and about half of the students are finished. I think about this strange university, which of course is not strange at all---just strange to me. I don't know if I like exams, but they are a fact of life here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Moving Along

I have several ideas for longer, more interesting posts, but neither the time nor the energy to write them. Perhaps this weekend. This pretty much sums of the state of affairs here. Things move along. I am doing the best I can with a large workload in a different setting than I'm used to. I'm learning how things work. I think teaching is going ok. It is both very interesting and there is also a lot of somewhat dull work. I think I am getting less behind, but it is hard to know.

Tomorrow I give a midterm exam. It is an in-class test, timed, in exam books. I haven't given a test like this since the 1990's. After the exam I have a three hour computer lab session. Friday is five hours of intro lab and two hours of GRE review. I will be happy when the weekend is here.

I have been looking longingly at the weather back home. It was 7 degrees F (-13 C) last night. Although the cold get tiresome after a while, the first major cold snap is always nice. I like how clear the air gets and how everything sounds different when it is that cold. It will be about a year before I experience seriously cold weather again. The last few days here have been free of rain and a haze has settled over the city. The lights on the hills still sparkle, however.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Digging out of a Hole

The term marches on here in Kigali. This will be week five of ten. Almost at the halfway point. Soon it will be time for midterm exams. Which then means it will be time for grading midterm exams.

I did some list-making and assessing today and realized that I am in a bit of a hole. I'm more behind on a bunch of work things than I like to be. I am quite good with deadlines, but for small things without firm deadlines, sometimes I let them slip and they accumulate. This has definitely happened. (I apologize if I own you an email or some other piece of work.)

It has taken a lot of energy to navigate the newness of Kigali and my situation here. And there have also been some minor logistical challenges; I'm not yet familiar with how things work here. So I have had less energy than usual and lots of things have been taking a little longer than I'm used to.

There is no way out but through, as the saying goes. So I hope that the next couple of weeks I can put my head down and dig out. It's a bit of a daunting task, but I think I can do it. Today was an ok start. I got some good sleep and then had a fairly productive day. Not super, but not bad either. I'm not at full speed, but I think I am gaining momentum.

The internet in my room wasn't working well, so I am in my office now and not on my balcony. The view from my office is pretty amazing. I have a great view to the east. The lights on the hills twinkle and I can see the occasional headlights of distant cars as they snake their way around the city.

It is time to head back to my room and start winding down. I will start some grading---or marking, as it is known here---for my Computational Physics class, while I listen to some music and have a cold beverage.