Saturday, May 24, 2014

Allison in Rwanda-land

Over the past several months, I've been on the road: Washington, New Orleans, Phoenix twice. Not bad if you like to travel, but nothing too exotic. So I was a little jealous when Randy told me about Paris, and Bob mentioned heading to Hong Kong. But all of that paled when I was chatting with Allison. "How's work?" I asked her as we caught up at a dinner party. "Good," she said. "I just found out I'm leaving next week for Rwanda for 3 months."

I'd say she's got Randy and Bob beat.

Allison works for Indego Africa, a nonprofit that serves as a gateway for cooperatives made up of female artisans in Rwanda. They provide marketing and economic support for them to sell their products, and use all the profits to support training in business and literacy. As outlets for the goods, they partner with some of the biggest names in style, from J. Crew to Eileen Fisher. Allison wound up interning there fresh out of college, and it's a good fit: she spent part of her junior year in Cameroon, has an intense interest in Africa and focused her job search on organizations working there.

But it's one thing to work in the office or staff the sales table at an event. It's another to be asked to hop on a plane to fly 17 hours to a country most people associate with genocide. Still, it's the kind of break that doesn't come along often, and it was the kind of experience for which she was hoping. And so she put her U.S. life on hold, and flew to Indego's home base in the capital of Kigali.

If your image of an African city is based on movies, and you think Mogadishu or Khartoum, you might question her sanity. The reality, however, is far different. While Rwanda is still recovering from the horrific events of 1994, the country is stable politically and has strengthened economically over the past two decades. It's been hailed as a model on reconciliation issues, and its tourism industry is growing. All in all, a third world country with designs on moving up.

As to Allison, she quickly moved into her new home in an ex-pat filled neighborhood a short distance from downtown. As described in her blog ("Bonne Journée," French for "Have a Nice Day"), her housemates are 5 young adults and a dog named Kenya. The house has plenty of running water, a washing machine and a full kitchen with a food processor. She's been here just a few weeks, but so far her take is that it's "a completely different experience than living in Cameroon – It's just like being in any city (but with dodgier internet service and public transportation)."  

In fact, life so far sounds not a whole lot different from her routine when she lived in Astoria. "On some days, I might stop by the grocery store on my way home to get something to make dinner with, but I have leftovers from last night, so I'm just going to eat that. Then I'm going to watch last night's episode of ‘Game of Thrones' with one of my housemates!"  There are accommodations though: "I have discovered with the peanut butter here (it's from Kenya), PB&J sandwiches are a lot better when the bread is toasted – I cannot explain why."

She's finding adventures big and small. Language is one: "My main accomplishment of the morning was learning (and remembering) how to pronounce Abaharaniramajyambere (the name of one of the cooperatives Indego works with)." Getting around is another: "To find the fruit market, I was told ‘walk down the street with all of the shops and people until you see a really big building. The market is in there, down the stairs.' Hmm." And there are some discoveries that feel right at home: "This is definitely the one: Inzozi Nziza!!! Sweet Dreams! An ice cream shop created by a drumming cooperative of Rwandan women with the help of some ice cream shop owners from Brooklyn where I ate in 2012!"

Allison's got a few more months to go, and is aiming to return to these shores midsummer. Until then she's eating a lot of passion fruit, making friends and practicing her Kinyarwanda. Or as she might say, it might not be Queens, but at least it's starting to feel like urugo.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to travel. You can read Allison's blog at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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