Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Traditional arts mostly consist of crafts, and especially functional ones. Many of their arts are similar to other cultures in this area. Weaving is one of the key crafts and is seen in woven baskets and bowls. The weavers will often weave in designs into whatever it is they’re creating using different colored fibers. 

Pottery and wood carving are also common and used in a number of ways from utensils to tools. They’re well known for their carvings of figurines. These arts, which continue today, give a connection with their past.

One strange art is a cow dung art called imigongo. The dung is mixed with different kinds of soils and natural materials to give it different colors and then painted into geometric shapes. Typically, the colors are black, grey, white, and red, although sometimes you’ll see a yellowish-beige color every now and then. 

Most of the literature of Rwanda is written in either Kinyarwanda or in French. For much of their history, their stories were told orally. And of the works that were written down, it was divided into two categories: formal and non-formal. Formal works included official documents, religious texts, etc. Non-formal works were basically popular stories.

A few of the major authors from Rwanda include Alexis Kagame (a historian who also covered poetry and mythology), Benjamin Sehene (novelist, mostly about the Genocide), Scholastique Mukasonga (famous for her novel Our Lady of the Nile), and Saverio Naigiki (known for his autobiography and his novel L’Optimiste).

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, December 10, 2017


If you were at least a teenager during the 1990s, it’s hard not to escape the Rwanda of that decade. The horrific images dominated the news just as Syria does now. (I wonder what Syria will look like in 25 years??). I didn’t quite understand what it was all about entirely; I was 14 years old in 1994. But when I watched the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda many years later, it put a face to the events. 

Scene from the movie Hotel Rwanda
The name Rwanda means “land” and may be based on the word kwanda, meaning “expand” in the Kinyarwanda language. It may also be based on the similar Rwanda-Rundi word rwanda, which means “domain” or “place that’s occupied by a swarm.” Probably not the most pleasant of origins. 

Rwanda is located in eastern Africa and is surrounded by Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Lake Kivu (on of the deepest lakes in the world) is a significant body of water on the border with the DRC. This landlocked country is one of the smallest countries in Africa and only a few degrees north of the equator. The central and western portions of the country are fairly mountainous. Typically, they have two rainy seasons separated by a couple of dry ones, even though global warming has changed the amount of rain they get and the severity of storms.

Part of Volcano National Park
During the Iron Age, several groups that were part of the Bantu migration moved into this area. Most of these groups were hunter gatherers. There are a few theories about the origins of the Hutu and Tutsi groups, but most center around making a racial or classist distinction between the two groups. The Twa (pygmies) were also originally in the area, but later moved to the mountain areas as others moved in. There were about eight kingdoms here when the Kingdom of Rwanda began taking over some of the smaller ones. King Rwabugiri issued a ruling forcing Hutu to work for Tutsi chiefs, which exacerbated the rift between the Hutu and Tutsi. After the Berlin Conference of 1884, this land was put under German control, then called German East Africa. The Germans really didn’t change a whole lot and deferred most matters to local authorities. But then the Belgians took control of Rwanda and Burundi during WWI, combining the two into Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians, like the Germans, still favored the Tutsis in control, but took it a step further by requiring people who have ID cards establishing which group they belonged to. Tensions arose, leading to the 1959 Rwandan Revolution that displaced nearly a hundred thousand people into nearby countries. In 1962, Rwanda finally broke off of Burundi and declared its own independence. Juvénal Habyarimana took over in a coup; however, the violence and tensions between the two groups continued for the next two decades. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) invaded from their base in Uganda and all hell broke loose. When Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994, it led to the infamous Rwandan Genocide. It’s estimated that between a half million and one million people died during a period of about 100 days. I remember journalists reporting that rivers were running red from the amount of bodies being dumped in the rivers. Although it took a long time to recover from the civil wars, Rwanda has taken several initiatives to a better quality of life. Rwanda is only one of two countries with a female majority in its national assembly (Bolivia is the other one.).

Kigali Convention Center
Centrally located, the capital and largest city in Rwanda is Kigali. The city actually wasn’t founded until 1907 when it was under German control. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, they established the capital in Kigali. Traditionally, the capital city had been at Nyanza, which was where the seat of kings had been. The colonial capital had been in Astrida (now known as Butare). And Kigali only won out because of its central location. It grew rather quickly, although it was the center of the Rwandan Genocide. Today, it has over 1.1 million people. It’s the center of government, commerce, finance, transportation, and media. It also has several colleges and universities, museums, sports venues, restaurants and hotels, parks, shopping centers, and arts venues.
Ecotourism, especially to see mountain gorillas, is especially popular.
After the genocide, it took a while for Rwanda’s economy to recover, partnering with China, Germany, and the US for major exports. There aren’t that many natural resources in Rwanda at all, so many people depend on subsistence farming, mostly in sweet potatoes, cassava, matoke (green bananas), maize, potatoes, wheat, coffee, and beans. Even at that, there are a few minerals that are mined to go with a small manufacturing and industry side of the economy. Tourism, and especially ecotourism, has grown since reconstruction.

Because of European colonialism, Roman Catholicism is still the dominant religion in Rwanda. However, since the genocide, Protestantism has grown in numbers, and to a smaller degree, so has Islam. There’s an extremely low number of people who do not adhere to any religion while many people still hold onto traditional beliefs (although they’re often coupled with following a major religion at the same time).

Primarily, most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, which is considered the official language. English and French are also official languages; English is the language most schools teach in, and French is left over from the Belgian occupation. Both French and English are also widely used in the African community, so it’s certainly an advantage to having a functional fluency. German is also used in certain aspects as well as Swahili, a lingua franca in East Africa.

Several years ago, Rwanda banned plastic bags. While initially, I thought (and probably a lot of environmentalists across the world) that this was a great thing. Right? I mean, plastic bags take FOREVER to dissolve, if ever. But I came across an article on Al Jazeera that said there’s also been an unexpected downside to all of this: it’s created an underground plastic bag smuggling operation. For many grocers, plastic bags are just more practical; as vegetables sweat, it dampens the paper bags, which just falls apart. People have gone to great lengths to sell plastic bags on the down low at a great risk—some who have been caught were handed six months’ jail sentence. So, while the intentions were good, there is probably a better way to handle situations like this. In the coming week, I’ll revisit these markets, except on the side of the food. And what I picked out sounds so good.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Well, I’m finally getting around the cooking Russian food. I had to put it off because of Thanksgiving. I really don’t enjoy the holidays. It just interrupts everything I’m doing, and I end up having to spend a lot of extra money this time of year. New Years is fine—it just celebrates what I do every weekend: staying up until midnight drinking. And there’s no religious aspect to it. Although, I’ll end up taking another break around then because my family wants me to make Brazilian feijoada again. And who can blame them? 

Rough and hearty.
But today is something that is appealing to me: Russian food. The first thing I started off with is Russian Black Bread. In a large bowl, I mixed together 1 c of rye flour, 1 ¼ tsp salt, 2 Tbsp butter (I use unsalted butter), 2 Tbsp molasses, 1 Tbsp brown sugar, 3 Tbsp cocoa, 1 tsp espresso or instant coffee, 1 packet of yeast, 1 ½ c of all purpose flour, 2 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar, and 1 1/8 c lukewarm water. I mixed this until it started to form a dough. Then I slowly added in 1 c of all-purpose flour and mixed well, kneading for 5-7 minutes until it was pretty elastic. I covered it and let it rest for about an hour. After this time, I put my dough into a greased bread pan and covered it with a greased plastic wrap and let it rest for another hour. Before putting it into my 375ºF oven, I brushed the top with water and lightly dusted the top with rye flour and added a few slashes to the top. I baked this for about 30-35 minutes. It was actually pretty dry and very earthy. By itself, it’s pretty hearty, but I think it would go better with some cheese (smoke gouda perhaps?) or a spread of some sort.

Even sans egg noodles, it was still amazing.

My main dish today is Bef Stroganov, or as we know it, Beef Stroganoff. The recipe I was using called for beef tenderloin, but I used a beef London broil/top round cut instead. I cut it into 2” long strips and seasoned it with salt and pepper. In my skillet, I sautéed some onions in butter and then added in some sliced white mushrooms until they start to “wilt.” Then I added in my beef strips and sauté for 5-10 more minutes until the meat started to turn, at which point I add in 1 Tbsp of flour. I mix together some beef broth, dry mustard, and tomato paste before pouring it into my skillet and stir everything together. Toward the end, I mix in about a ½ c of sour cream and 3 oz of white wine, stirring and let everything simmer for another 15 minutes or so. This was fabulous. The only thing I might do differently would be to turn down my heat and let it cook for another 10-15 minutes until it was even more tender. Otherwise, it was very good. And I served this by itself (well, with my side dishes), as opposed to the American version, which tends to use ground beef and served on egg noodles. I also learned there are some who serve it on rice.

I love dill. It's such a pretty plant, and it's quite tasty.

To go with this, I served Potatoes a la Russe. I brought a pot of water to a boil and cut a lemon into quarters, squeezing the juice into the water and just dropping the whole thing in there. Then I added in a bay leaf, some salt and pepper and boiled my peeled and cut potatoes. Once I drained them in a colander, I transferred just the potatoes back to the pot, adding in a little bit of fresh dill, a little olive oil, and some minced garlic. Holding the lid back on, I picked up the entire pot and shook it to coat the potatoes on the inside (a little harder than it seems since the pot is still hot). Then I transferred it to a serving dish, adding a little more dill on top. Other than needing a touch more salt, I thought this was a very good side to the Beef Stroganoff. 

And finally, I made Russian Gingered Carrots. To make this easy dish, I peeled and cut up 4 carrots into rounds and combined it with some ginger and sugar in a bowl, stirring to coat. I let it sit for about 20 minutes before melting a bit of butter in a pan and adding the carrot mixture in. I also added in a pinch of salt and some fresh marjoram as it sautéed until the carrots were soft. This dish right here surprised me the most. There was something about the flavor of the marjoram and the ginger meshing the way it did that I didn’t expect. I especially liked this one.

Overall, this was an excellent meal if I may say so.

And of course I can’t forget vodka. Russia is famous for its vodka. I haven’t had vodka for such a long time, and although it’s probably not authentic at all, I bought vanilla vodka, which is actually pretty good. There are actually several Russian-named drinks: White Russian, Black Russian, Moscow Mule to name a few (basically, they all have vodka in them). So, all in all, this was a good meal, and I’m almost inspired to relearn my Cyrillic. It started to come back to me a little as I read through articles and such. Maybe I’ll go back and try to learn some Russian on Duolingo. Right after I finish up German. And French and Dutch.  

Up next: Rwanda   


Russian folk music spans many ethnic groups and cultures. Each group has their own varieties and music and dance. Folk music is still quite popular and is often tied with many of their cultural celebrations. However, during the Soviet era, folk music was seen as something different. It was either for the people (democratic) or for the working class (proletariat). Art music was often seen as being higher-class. Traditional folk music was even pushed as an alternative to other Western music. 

This is a contrabass balalaika. File this instrument under "Size doesn't matter."

In the earliest days, the Russian Orthodox Church banned musical instruments, saying they were from the devil. (No, just the woodwinds. Just kidding, I love my woodwind-playing friends.) Singing became the preferred means of music (they obviously have never heard what I call Old Lady Soprano), used for both singing religious songs and songs about village life. It’s no wonder that Russia has developed some of the world’s finest choral ensembles. Some of the more common instruments include the balalaika (a triangle-shaped, 3-stringed instrument), domra (Russian version of the mandolin with either 3 or 4 strings), gudok (pear-shaped bowed instrument), a couple of different kinds of accordions (bayan, garmon), svirel (Russian flute), volynka (Russian version of the bagpipes), zhaleika (Russian clarinet/hornpipe), and several different percussion equivalents. 

There are several types of Russian folk dance. One of the more common types is the khorovod, a circle dance where dancers hold hands and sing. Others include a bear dance (where dancers dress as bears), the kazachok (of Russian and Ukrainian origin, literally “Little Cossack”), the kamarinskaya (a quick tune accompanying a squatting dance called the kazatsky), and the chechotka (a tap dance typically in woven shoes made from bast [fibers from the bark of certain trees]). Russia is also well known for its ballet schools. And of course, it's acrobatic Cossack Dance.

As far as classical music goes, Russian classical music goes back to court music and religious music. It wasn’t until Mikhail Glinka focused on secular music and wrote some of the first Russian operas. Along came a group of composers known by the nickname “The Might Five”: Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Balakirev. One of the most famous composers is Tchaikovsky, and perhaps his successor Rachmaninoff. The 20th century brought along composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. 

As far as modern music goes, I found several that I liked. I had long been a fan of t.A.T.u. since they first came out on the music scene. They gained a lot of attention because no one could really figure out whether they were lesbians or not (gasp!). Their music is half pop, half techno. And that’s what I liked about it. 

Another group that has made the news many times is Pussy Riot. When I first started hearing about them, it was kind of awkward because of their name, but now, thanks to “grab ‘em by the pussy,” it’s no longer quite as awkward. They’re quite open about their opposition to the Putin and Trump administrations. I really wish they’d make a full-length album. I love their style. I'd totally buy it.

I came across quite a few indie and alternative bands that I could get down with. I’m just gonna list them here: Mumiy Troll (kind of reminds me of the Brazilian band Skank in a way), Zemfira (a good example of creating catchy songs with the minimal number of chords possible), Splean (for the most part, tends to be a little slower), Bi-2 (sounds like they would be good friends with The Smiths. Maybe.), Zveri (a little harder, with a 1990s sound), and Korol i Shut (definitely a harder sound on this one, almost punk at times but then they’ll change up to a classical/folk sound). 

I listened to Leningrad, who has almost a gypsy punk/spa sound, eerily a lot like Gogol Bordello (who I’m a big fan of). There’s one song that uses asterisks in it, indicating it’s a bad word, but it’s in Russian, so I have no idea what it is. It’s a little anticlimactic. Another ska band I came across is Distemper. Pretty catchy stuff.

One metal band I found is Mechanical Poet. They mixed a lot of strings into their music as well, maintaining a goth sound to their music. And like t.A.T.u. and Pussy Riot, they also sing in English. Arkona is another folk metal band I came across as well.

There were even a couple of hip-hop groups I listened to. Bad Balance is one I listened to. The flow and rhythms were pretty good and the underlying music was pretty catchy. The same is true for Vlady & Kasta. Kirpichi is a little different because the music underneath is closer to rock beats, although they will use other styles.

I even found a Russian reggae band: Jah Division. I’m a fan of global reggae, and it always amazes me that everyone adds a little bit of their own flavor to it. In this case, there is a very prominent Russian flair to it.

There are also several DJs and electronic artists out there that span many different sub-genres. A couple that I listened to was Serebro (more club dance style crossed with pop) and Otto Dix (like a cross between folk metal and electronica. Rob Zombie meets The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Up next: the food