All posts by John Lusk

Arrived in Kigali

We have arrived at our hotel room in Kigali, having left the house around 3:30 am on Thursday and travelling for about 36 hours. Rwanda is six hours ahead of Chapel Hill, and there is no daylight savings time.

We were actually supposed to arrive here yesterday, but American Airlines cancelled our flight to JFK around 12:30 a.m. the morning we were supposed to catch it. Word has it they cancelled the flight due to the recent grounding of all the world’s Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, but there was a big storm in Dallas earlier this week that caused 200 flight cancellations and a labor “action” at LAX the week before that that resulted in more cancellations. I’m guessing the Dallas storms put an additional strain on an already stressed system, and we saw the consequences.

We were planning on a leisurely three-hour layover at JFK, but we spent an additional two hours getting the plane’s engines started at RDU. And the layover on Qatar Airlines (which was a very nice airline; my first experience with it) was also short (about an hour in Doha). Late departures make for stressful transfers, but we made it and nobody had to run.

And now we’re at Villa Portofino hotel in Kigali, on a balcony overlooking the pool, blogging and catching up on the hotel wifi. There are kids are playing in the pool, mellow reggae (-ish) music with an African flavor (as opposed to Caribbean) is playing and chefs are preparing a meal over a large bed of charcoal, so we can smell the smoke. The weather is cool and dry, and there’s a slight breeze. It’s 100% relaxing (apart from the DJ who keeps injecting video-game sound effects and switching songs in the middle of a song — oh well, I guess party time is warming up). :) Supper will be served in an hour and a half as I type this. (Maybe the picture I took off the balcony will eventually finish uploading and I’ll be able to put it in this blog post, but, if not, I’ll post it later.)

An interesting occurrence when we left Entebbe, Uganda, was that the stewarding crew walked up and down the plane’s aisles, spraying an insecticide into the air. They advised us to cover our mouths and noses. People take mosquito-borne illnesses seriously here.

When we arrived, the airport in Kigali had a sleepy, relaxed feel, in spite of Kigali being Rwanda’s largest city and capitol. People who were moving were strolling. It had a nice feel. I was reminded of the concept of “Africa time”, although I did see one guy trotting to get somewhere (not a tourist, I think).

On the flight from Doha, we got a chance to talk to the two men in the seats behind us, who were flying to Kigali. One of them, Sam, lives in Belgium with his wife and comes home to Kigali every year, to spend time with family and work a little bit as a guide in the national forest that straddles the Rwanda-Uganda border. The other, Isaac, was a small businessman bringing electronics and shoes from China (presumably for sale in Kigali). They seemed impressed with Zoe’s approach (by the way, wearing the Zoe T-shirts is a great conversation-starter and advertisement). They liked that Zoe’s direction comes from local people who know what the problems on the ground are, along with approaches that might work.

One of the things that Sam said that I found interesting is that tourism to Rwanda is good and a desired thing. (He asked us to bring more people next time, and we talked a bit about tourism as one aspect of Rwanda’s economic development.) I had always felt like these trips shouldn’t be considered tourist trips, and I felt a little guilty at the touristy aspect of it, but: our tourist-y dollars are also a contribution.

Flights delayed :(

So, quick update for those awaiting updates with bated breath: American Airlines cancelled our RDU –> JFK flights around midnight last night. (I understand it’s because of the issue with the grounding of the 737 MAX airplanes, and American’s need to cover flights with suddenly a lot fewer airplanes.)

At any rate, one of our co-travellers, Ginny, reacted really fast to the cancellation and got all three of our reservations rescheduled to the same flights but 24 hours later.

Go, Ginny! :D

On global extreme-poverty trends and Africa

Many people may have seen a graph like the following, showing a dramatic decline in extreme poverty, which is defined as “living on less than two dollars per day”, over the last two centuries:


The temptation might be to think that the war against extreme poverty has been won and we can now turn our attention to other matters.

However, since 1981, the decline in global extreme poverty is really a Chinese, Indian and Asian success story. In sub-Saharan Africa, the level of extreme poverty (by absolute number of people) has not changed significantly.

There is still plenty to be done, probably on multiple fronts.

Here’s the link to the whole story, in exhaustive detail (which I’ve only skimmed a bit):

One note, though: poverty seems worst among children.

The members of our 2018-2020 group in Rwanda

Ladies and gentlemen… Imbaraga Power.  Family heads in bold.

Anet (f) 20 Denyse M. (f) 18 Henriette (f) 20 Protais (m) 20
Josiane (f) 14 Denyse U. (f) 17 Jacques (m) 20 Devota (f) 16
Hakim (m) 7 Patrick (m) 15 Mariette (f) 15 Janvier (f) 12
Assumpta (f) 20 Joselyne (f) 13 Amon (m) 8 Ratifa (f) 9
Eric (m) 8 Diane (f) 18 Jean Nepo (m) 20 Seraphine (f) 18
Eduard (m) 6 Albertine (f) 13 Innocent (m) 14 Jean Baptiste (m) 13
Beatrice (f) 20 Lona (f) 12 Fiona (f) 12 Marc (m) 11
Theoneste (m) 18 Yusufu (m) 11 Jeanette (f) 19 Benjamin (f) 5
Chartine (f) 16 Izaac (m) 10 Francine (f) 11 Olivier (m) 18
Benita (f) 13 Afisa (f) 8 Janviere (f) 7 Violette (f) 20
Moise (m) 6 Shamira (f) 3 Florence (f) 3 Jeanette (f) 19
Claudine (f) 19 Zabania (f) 2 Jean Claude (m) 16 Aline (f) 15
Damascene (m) 17 Shukurani (f) 2 Jeanette (f) 18 Amos (m) 11
Delphine (f) 16 Emmanuel (m) 20 Clemence (f) 16 Yvette (f) 20
Cyomugisha (f) 20 David (m) 19 Damascene (f) 11 Delphine (f) 14
Pamela (f) 18 Charlotte (f) 18 Florence (f) 11 Samuel (m) 12
Denyse Tw. (f) 20 Jeanette (f) 16 Vestine (f) 3 Benjamin (m) 7
Denyse N. (f) 19 Eric (m) 17 Jonathan (m) 20 Zipora (f) 20
Denyse Tu. (f) 20 Pamella (f) 19 Emmanuel (m) 18


Imbaraga-Gatuna Empowerment Group

Trip Blog Posts in Chronological Order

I have now posted all of our “trip blog posts”, in semi-random order. (I still need to post videos, but it’s taking way too long to get back to those.)

Here they are, strung together in chronological order:


Travel to Maua

Day One: Our Working Group

Day Two: Church

Day Three: Tharaka and the Third-Year Group

Day Four: The First-Year Group

End: Safari

A Connection Made in Church

So, here’s the tiny (microscopic) story of our money-changing “adventure”.

(I’ll just put the pro tip here: when you exchange money for Kenyan shillings at the airport in Nairobi, don’t assume you can always exchange more later. You can, but it’s a pretty big inconvenience. Go ahead and get all you’ll think you’ll need plus a little more at the airport.)

On the day we visited the first-year group, three of us realized we hadn’t taken into account the gratuities we’d be paying our drivers and hotel staff, and our plans for some end-of-the-trip shopping. So, we had to cut our visit with the working group short (which I think is sad, actually) and hightail it back to Maua in time to get into a bank (Barclays) by 4:00 pm. We just barely made it.

Once in, we got in line to wait for a teller. (While we were in line, I saw a poster advertising Barclays’s new low interest rate for home loans: 10%.) When we got to a teller, we asked to exchange $20 for Kenyan schillings.

Well. First they asked us for our passports. Then, it seemed like they didn’t exactly know what to do next (although they didn’t say that). So, they asked us to have a seat and wait. We did. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Meanwhile, the bank was closing.

At one point, a man walked over to us and said “I think I can say hello.” He was very friendly. It turns out that he was in church when we stood in front and introduced ourselves. So, he was literally just saying hello. It was very pleasant.

Eventually, we got our Kenyan shillings and our passports back, although the rest of our group, waiting back in the van, had begun to worry about us.

Used T-Shirts in Kenya (Planet Money Podcast)

Planet Money, an economics podcast by NPR, had a really interesting episode on what happens to used T-shirts. It turns out some of them wind up in Kenya and (I’m assuming) worn by the kids in our working group. And, every step of the way (of course), they generate economic activity.

The first stop in Kenya is at the business of a woman who, 15 years ago, was selling used T-shirts one at a time. I don’t know for sure, but I’m imagining a kiosk like the ones our kids run.

Here’s the episode: The Afterlife of a T-shirt.

Reegan’s Long Backgrounder Lecture the First Day

So, the morning after we arrived, before our first visit (to our working groups), Reegan sat us all down in the patio area of the hotel and gave us a long background talk on ZOE, very dense with figures and procedures. It took at least 90 minutes. Here is as much of that as we could capture.

(This turned out to be a monstrous post that took a while to reconstruct from the excellent notes Erika took, with a few of my own sprinkled in. This applies to ZOE in Kenya, as told to us by Reegan and fleshed out with my own impressions and recollections, as hazy as they are.)

Continue reading Reegan’s Long Backgrounder Lecture the First Day