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.