Monday, May 25, 2009

Out of Africa...

Ok, so I left Rwanda on April 28th and went to Lebanon to visit
Kamal (a grad school buddy) and give a talk at the American
University in Beirut. The campus is stunning, maybe nicer than
Cornell's. Kamal's office overlooks the Mediterranean. Mostly
I hung out with Kamal and talked math. I did visit Byblos, a place
where people ave lived for 7000 years. The pictures below are
from there.

We stopped at a seaside restaurant as well.

After 6 days there I went to Ethiopia. I spent two days in Addis
Ababa, then spent a day in Gonder and a day in Lalibela. Both towns
are a few hundred kilometers north of Addis. There are some beautiful
old palaces from the 1600s in Gonder. In Ethiopia there are guides
everywhere. The guide in Gonder took me to a church as well and invited
me to an English class he taught in the evening. We ended up coteaching it.
It was a lot of fun. First time I taught English!

Lalibela is amazing. About 800 years ago they carved, in the solid
mountain, 11 churches underground. All in 23 years. The place is up
in the Simien mountains at 9000 feet.

Anyways, in between the trips to Gonder and Lalibela and
flying back to the US that was 5 days in a row on airplanes.

The whole term was a great time, and I am done with posting, at
least til my next trip to Rwanda. Anybody who wants to see more
pictures should swing by my office. I have over a thousand.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Heading out

Well, I leave Rwanda today. I'll go to Beirut for six days
(and visit Kamal for those of you from grad school) then
to Ethiopia for six days. Then I go to New Hampshire to visit
my brother and parents for a few days and to NYC to see my
first game in the new Yankee Stadium (will they give up 22
runs again?) and finally to Ithaca in mid-May.

So I will miss lots of things about Rwanda. The first that
comes to mind is being a rock star to children when I walk
around some of the non-rich (=poor) neighborhoods. They get
so excited and happy when they see a mzungu. They really like
it when I shake their hand, or return their offered fist bump.
One time a little three year old girl saw me and ran out to
give me a big hug.

I have tons of great memories. Certainly the trips that I've
already mentioned here (I can't bring myself to use blog as
a verb) I'll remember for the rest of my life, but there are
many little moments. Like the time when I was in this very
poor neighborhood and it started to poor and these people who
ran a tiny store in their house invited me in during the rain.
They didn't have anything I wanted to buy, and it rained hard
for maybe half an hour, so I left a small amount of money on
my chair when I headed out. It was still raining some. A
couple hundred meters down the road the girl chased me down
barefoot through the rain to offer to return the money. These
people had pretty much nothing and they I knew I was rich.

Seeing children in Goma running around in a group of 5 laughing
and screaming and realizing that one was riding on a bike with
no back wheel while the other four holding up the back of the
bike and serving as the back wheel. This made my both happy to
see them have fun and sad they probably never will have a proper

Or watching the moms carry babies papoose style. It looks like
it would be uncomfortable for the kid, but they seem pretty happy.

Riding the minibuses. These are the size of old VW van. They
carry the driver, conductor and about 17 passengers. They don't
leave until they are full and if half way through the run they
are too empty they'll just wait at a stop til they fill up more.

The birds and flora in the city are just so different from home
that I am constantly amazed.

I'll miss my guy on the street with one leg who makes his living
selling postcards and batiks. He always says hi to me, but never
pesters or pursues me if I say `not today'.

Ok, this is getting too long and pretty soon I can talk to anyone
interested about this in person.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Last week I went to Uganda. I was on a program called Teach
and Tour Sojourners. The idea is they get profs from the west
to come and give lectures. Everybody at Cornell got invited to
come a couple months back and since I was in the neighborhood
I went. I gave about a dozen lectures at high schools,
universities and one primary school. More in a bit.

I also went to Jinja, a couple hours east of Kampala and went
white water rafting on the Nile (the `Tour' part of `Teach and
Tour'. This was fantastic. You cover about 30 kilometers. It's
mostly smooth, but there are about 8 or 9 rapids, some of which
are very tough, grade 5. At the end we got out and walked the
rafts around a grade 6 rapids to do the grade 5 one beneath it.
The first thing they do is basic safety stuff. You practice
flipping the raft, how to get out from underneath it if it does
flip etc. Then you go on some pretty easy rapids. No problems.
You think the day will be easy. The rapids get more interesting.
At one point I was thrown out of the raft. At another we were in
a calm strong downstream current. No need to paddle. No need to
stay in the raft. We all jumped out and floated down the Nile in
our life jackets at the good clip of 5 mph or so for 10 minutes.
Later a storm came in and was blowing upriver. There was
practically no current. When we didn't row, we went backwards.
Then the rain really came down and it was freezing. We pulled
over to the river bank. What do you do in a cold rain on the Nile?
Jump in the river to keep warm! The water was great - it was just
the rain that was cold. The last rapids was crazy. I don't know
what happened except we flipped the raft 2 seconds into it. It was
terrific! Afterwhat seemed like 30 seconds (probably < 10) my jacket
brought me up. All in all we were on the river for 6 hours. No
pictures as I don't have a waterproof camera. I would have lost it
when we flipped anyway!

Before the trip, which starts at `The Source of the Nile' I visited
a shrine to Gandhi. He worked in Uganda for a while.

Now for the `Teach' part. I gave about twelve lectures while
I was there, mostly at high schools and universities, but one
at a primary school. A main point was to explain that there are
math problems we don't know the answer to, as many people don't
realize this. I used the Goldbach Conjecture that every even number
is a sum of two primes as an easy to explain example, though I don't
like the problem very much. Primes are for multiplying, not adding!
I explained that to get a Ph.d you have to solve a problem that has
not been solved. When put this way it took them aback. Then I did
the History of Fermat's Last Theorem thing. At the end of the talk
I asked if they had any questions. It was my turn to be taken aback.
I got asked by a high school student for a Ph.d problem. I also got
asked all the hard math problems they had, integrals, the area of a
trapezoid from the elementary school kids. It was not what I
expected, but the whole thing was very fun! A couple pictures are
below. I am, as usual, covered in chalk.

Finally check out the bird below, They are EVERYWHERE in
downtown Kampala, which is a much bigger and busier city
than Kigali. There are skyscrapers, fast food places, and
since it was a British colony, English works there. It was
nice to able to talk to people. Also, the students had an
easier time with my lecture because English is their second
language, not third like in Rwanda.

Things are winding down. I have 8 more days in Rwanda,
then I go to Beirut and Ethiopia for 12 days then back home.

Butare, Burundi and back

A few weeks ago I went back to Butare, this time to give a lecture
at the National University there on the `History of Fermat's Last
Theorem'. After that I took a bus to Bujumbura, the biggest city
in Burundi. It was about 5 hours on windy hilly roads. Not for those
prone to carsickness. As the bus came into Bujumbura on a four lane
city street, traffic was backed up in our two inbound lanes. The bus
driver solved this problem going into one of the outbound lanes.
When a policeman whistled for him to stop the driver just screamed
at the cop and continued. I really wish I understood what he said!

Bujumbura positively bustles compared to Kigali. It reminded me of
Bombay. In town there is a huge covered market, maybe the size of
two football fields. It is completely filled with vendors selling
stuff from food to suitcases. I bought a suitcase to bring home
all the stuff I have bought here. I got it in Burundi because
prices are lower than Kigali. The vendor started out at 45000
francs and I ended up paying 30000, about $24. He was probably
very pleased with the deal.

I went to a beach on Lake Tanganyika and just hung out. It was very
pleasant. I also went for a short canoe ride on the lake. The lake
is one of the rift valley lakes, remnants of the geological thingamjig
that almost split Africa in two. I think Bujumbura is about 2000 feet
above sea level, but parts of the lake go below sea level. And it's
ringed by mountains that must go 3000 feet above it.

I mostly spent my two days walking around, soaking up the
atmosphere. While walking down by the port area I saw a couple
hippos hanging out in the water. It was weird seeing them in a
heavily populated area. From reading someone's blog I heard the
university was up on a hill, so I walked up towards some big
buildings, half on the road, half on trails. Up there I found a
restaurant with an amazing view of the city and the lake. It was
incredible. The only reason I don't mention the name is that I would
rather mention that I had what was truly the worst margarita of my
life there. It was basically straight lime juice. But check out the
view. The covered market is on the left.

I did walk up to the university. Like Cornell it overlooks the town
and the lake. Unlike Cornell a guard tells you to put away your
camera before you enter the grounds. Just beneath the university
is this place:

I think it has something to do with independence. After I took the
photo a guard came up to me and told me not to take any more
pictures. That seemed to be his entire job: Sit up in a place where
there might be five tourists a day and tell them not to take photos.

Finally, to those who think Obama is a socialist, I should point out
that anyone who so cravenly trades on his fame to sell his image for
profit has to be a capitalist.

In Uganda the next week I saw a car plastered with pictures of the
guy that was the `Obama fast food mobile'. I wasn't able to get a

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 7th

Fifteen years ago yesterday the plane carrying Presidents
Habyarimana and Ntaryamira of Rwanda and Burundi was
shot down as it approached Kigali airport. Prime Minister
Uwilingiyimana, next in line for presidency of Rwanda,
was killed along with ten Belgium peacekeepers. I believe
these last two actions were taken 15 years ago today.

The west decided to withdraw forces, paving the way for
the genocide. Over the next 90 days between 500,000 and
1,000,000 people were murdered. That's between 5% and 10%
of the country.

Today is a National Holiday in Rwanda. In fact the entire
week is a Week of Mourning. There will be ceremonies
throughout the country. I hope to go to one at the main
football stadium today, though I'm not sure what will be
open, especially in terms of public transport.

I remember reading about violence in Rwanda back in '94,
but remember thinking of it as `normal African internal
struggles'. I don't know if it was my apathy or if the media
dropped the ball or both.

Recently while waiting in a line on campus a student asked
me what I thought of Rwanda. He thought the west only knew
Rwanda through the genocide and asked whether my views had
changed after living here. I told him it was hard for me to
give an assessment because I had no base point. People here
seldom talk about it, and I'm certainly reluctant to bring
it up. My total conversations with people here about it might
come to 20 minutes after 3 months here. So I don't know
`what part' or Rwanda and Rwandans the genocide comprises.

Recently I was meeting some people and there was a person
with them. It is customary here to shake hand with whomever
you meet, even if they are meeting one of the five people
you are with. We shook hands, but I don't think we spoke.
This person was Damas Gisimba, one of the Heroes of the
Genocide. He hid 400 people at the Gisimba orphanage in
the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali, just a few kilometers
from KIST.

Google or youtube Gismba and heroes of the genocide. Whether
it be text or video be prepared for some uplifting but disturbing

Sunday, March 29, 2009


So even though the graduating students finished their finals back
in September, KIST just had graduation last week. I have no idea why.
I went, but since first class of math students graduates next year I
didn't know anybody. This is me in my gown.

Ok, here's a better picture of me.

I was tempted to steal the gown - the red would be nice at Cornell
graduations. Mom, dad, unfortunately those lessons about stealing
being wrong ended up sticking, so I don't have a nice gown.

This is your fault.

They had the Kigali police band

and a student dance troupe as well.

So I have not really had much time to do anything too exciting
recently. I give my final in a couple days. After that I go back
to Butare to give a lecture at the National University and then
I'll travel some in the south. Then I get back for the first day
of the National Week of Mourning marking the beginning of the
genocide. There is no school that week. Things slow down quite
a bit in town. Then I go to Uganda for a week, mostly to be a
tourist but I'll be giving a lecture a day for a week or so. For
those of you who are profs, if you want to come to East Africa
at your own expense and lecture, contact Teach and Tour Sojourners
(TATS). They'll arrange for it. Every Cornell prof got an email
from them a month or two ago, and since I was already here I figured
I may as well do it.

Hopefully I'll have more interesting things to post after these

Wednesday, March 18, 2009



Not a whole lot to report. I gave an exam last week and was
busy with grading it. And a colleague was sick so I took his
game theory class. That was fun - hadn't thought about that
stuff since I took the class in college.

The week before I went to Butare - that's where the National
University of Rwanda is. It's a couple hours south of here.
Butare is a much smaller town than Kigali. It's also spread
over many hills but here in Kigali the valleys are filled with
slums. In Butare the valleys are mostly undeveloped. It's very
pretty. I finally got to go to a museum after two months here!
(Not counting genocide memorials.) I did once see a sign for a
Natural History Museum a couple kilometers from the guest
house at KIST and have twice gone to look for it, but I never
found it. Anyways, there's a nice museum in Butare (a gift from
Belgium to commemorate the 25th anniversary of independence).
Here it is:

They don't allow photographs inside, but there's a a botanical
garden behind it. I've put up a bunch of pictures of fauna in
previous posts. This is the flora edition.

Before going to Butare I went to Gikongoro (the city has a new name
now - I forget it) to visit a particularly sad memorial. It is in
an area very near Nyungwe National Park. The setting is stunning,
with steep hills that are terraced for farming. It's very incongruous
to think of what went on in this gorgeous place 15 years ago.

I saw this bird there. Click on the photo to check out its tail!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Volcano

The Volcano we hiked, Mount Bisoke is not active. The
Volcano in nearby Congo is. It erupted in 2002 and buried
a big part of the town. It was slow moving lava so most people
evacuated. It's possible to hike there and spend the night, and
see lava. When I went to Goma I half hoped to find some UN people
who were going to go do that and join them, but it didn't happen.

Bisoke has a lake down in the crater. When you get to the top
there are signs that forbid swimming. Methane gas is being
released into the lake and there are areas on the surface where
there is no oxygen. It's the same deal in Lake Kivu to the west.
People have died swimming in Lake Kivu. You also can't walk around
the rim as Bisoke crosses national boundaries, I think into Congo.
The hike was really tough. Age is starting to catch up with me - I
was the laggard of the group and in the end the decision was made
(with my acquiescence) that a porter would carry my backpack. I did
make it to the top fine. The previous day when visiting the gorillas
at 10K feet I could feel the altitude. For a few minutes I was a bit
lightheaded. Going up to 12K on the volcano I was fine, just slow.
Altitude affects people strangely that way. A guy on the hike
organizes tours up Kilimanjaro. He's been up seven times. The first
three and last three were fine. On the middle try he got altitude
sickness and he said "I thought I was going to die."

Since people like gorillas, I added a bunch more pics. There's
a nice picture of a silverback, though not the boss of the group.
According to the guides when the boss passes away, there will be
no primacy fight among the other three silverbacks. The ranking is
understood by all. The first picture is Mt. Karisimbi, taken from
the *top* of Bisoke. It goes 2500 feet higher than Bisoke! It's a
two day hike to the top.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In the mist

Well, not so much really. Last week I went to the northern
town of Ruhengheri to see the mountain gorillas and hike a
volcano. This is where Dian Fossey of `Gorillas in the Mist'
fame did her work. (I didn't know this but she was at Cornell
from `81 to `83 before she was killed in `85.) At this time of
year the weather is supposed to be lousy, rainy and overcast.
We had two great days. You get to the park and then because
our group was far away we drove about an hour and a half on
very bad roads to the hike. At first we went through this

amazing bamboo forest. The stalks were 30 feet and taller.
I've never seen anything like it. We started at around 8000
feet and hiked up to over 9000. The guide was in contact with
trackers. It took longer than usual to find the group (about 40
gorillas), a total of 3.5 hours of hiking on trails and
bushwhacking when necessary. The guides had machetes and cut down
bamboo when we went off trail.

This is Magilla.

If you don't get the reference you are too old, too young, or
my age and you frittered away your youth by not watching
enough cartoons on TV. So you get to the group and they go over
the etiquette. No pointing as the gorillas think you are throwing
something at them. Eye contact is fine. Don't go closer than 7
meters, though if the gorillas approach slowly, then back up slowly.
If they charge (they do this as a feint, for fun), crouch down.
You get one hour with them. In the first 5 minutes we got a
couple of vigorous chest beatings and one charge. We all backed
away rather than crouch! This shows you how close we got them.

The big males, silverbacks because the hair on their backs turns
silver, can go over 450 pounds. The boss of the group, who saw
us arrive and then went off was massive. His head was the size
of my torso (ok, in my case that isn't saying much). Here are a
few more pictures.

For the record, Dian Fossey disapproved of this sort of tourism.
In her day poaching was the issue and she organized antipoaching
patrols. Now that isn't a problem and they have the one hour limit.
The gorillas don't seem to mind us at all, but there is the health
risk that humans bring to gorillas and the question of whether
having their day upset for an hour is a bad for them. On the flip
side this brings HUGE amounts of money into an impoverished country.
It costs $500 to go on this trip and that does not count hotel,
transport etc. You only hope the money is not lining bureaucrats'

I need to go do math - volcanoes will come later.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Last weekend

This is Roger.

I met Roger at a pub in Nyamirambo, the neighborhood next to
KIST. It's more accurate to say he met me. He had noticed I
had been there a few times (mzungu stick out) and started
chatting. It turns out he owns a mine for coltan (or is it coaltan?)
a couple hours out of Kigali. It's a pretty small affair, but
that's because to separate the coltan from the rock they need to
wash the rock. And the nearest water source is 2 kilometers away,
and down a hill 100 meters or so. People carry the water up in jugs
on their heads. Roger is planning to set up a pump system in the
next 4 months. Then he hopes to produce 100 kg per day. Coltan
sells for $25-30 per kg, so this is real money. He hopes to employ
200 people. Anyway he took me and the young German couple in the guest
house to visit his mine. The pictures are from the mine and what we
saw along the way. The wooden bike is pretty cool! Those are coffee beans
at the top. We had to drive at least 20 km on dirt roads in the middle of
nowhere to get to the mine. What looks like a hole in the ground (ok, it
is a hole in the ground) is one of the sources of coltan. The earth there is
30% coltan or so. When we parked in the village (maybe 20 small houses)
we immediately attracted an audience of small boys. They followed us
up the hill and to the mines, for a few hours. They seemed to have a good
time watching the mzungu.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

More pictures

Not much new to report - electricity was out
in the math building for a week. Now that it
and a fast internet connection are back I thought
I'd upload more pictures. They are mostly of Akagera
and Gisenyi/Goma.

In the 2nd pic if you enlarge it you can see all the banana trees.
Cooking bananas and potatoes are staples here. Rice and bread are
too expensive for most people.

The guy in the dugout canoe was fishing and selling his catch.
He seemed to go between Rwanda and Congo along the lake with impunity.

The little boy was up in the woods above Gisenyi, in the banana farming
community. I tried to get him to look at his picture (something that
everyone here loves) but he ran away.

The last 3 pics are of Akegera. It's a special place.

Off to hike a volcano and see gorillas later this week.