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