Of JAIST

It’s been almost two weeks since I blogged and I have no excuse! Not that there is nothing to write about, on the contrary there have been some awesome recent experiences but these days I filter what  I tell the readers unlike in the past when  I would spill it all.

Anyway, back to the post at hand. My undergraduate university has a long name: Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, which we simply shortened to JKUAT. It rarely fit into form fields whenever I had to write it. Next year, I shall be enrolling for PhD at Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST), the curse of the long name is back. Anyway, it is more of a research center really, so there are no undergraduate courses and it only specializes in 3 areas: knowledge science, information science and materials science. It probably has the highest ratio of foreign students and teachers in this area and English is one of the main languages there. So to learn Japanese, I had to enroll at a sister university, Kanazawa University, where I am currently.

Kanazawa City is more like Nakuru in Kenya, not too big, not too small, vibrant but not loud, moderate population, very clean. Kanazawa University is like 30 minutes from the city center, and it’s a relatively lively place to be. JAIST on the other hand, is built on the mountains and is surrounded by almost nothing. The nearest town where the train makes the last stop looks like one of those small towns in movies where everyone knows everyone else, and where a stranger arrives and a horror movie follows!

 

Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

My colleague is depressed when he thinks we will be heading there next year, there is not much to do there expect, well, research! But I am actually excited and I am looking forward to it, even as I enjoy my time here. Learning Japanese is fun, and I do like Kanji, even if it is difficult to read and write it.

Interlude: Japanese 101

Japanese uses 3 ‘alphabet’ sets for writing: Hiragana, Katakana and the Chinese characters, Kanji. Sometimes even Roman characters will be contained in the sentence. Generally, Kanji will be used for nouns and verbs, hiragana will be used to conjugate the verbs  to show past tense, for example. And Katakana is used to write foreign/loan words, like ‘computer’ which is pronounced almost similar in Japanese.

However, writing in Kanji makes the sentences shorter (as opposed to writing everything in the Hiragana alphabet – think something similar to the Roman alphabet) and believe me, easier to read (because Kanji conveys meaning as well as sounds). For example, Kanazawa University in Hiragana is かなざわだいがく。In Kanji, just 4 characters. 金沢大学.

Miura-sensei explaining the name of the university in Japanese
Miura-sensei explaining the name of the university in Japanese

Which brings me back to JAIST. There is just no shortening this name, even in Kanji, the name is long. The name of Japan  Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Japanese is Hokuriku (this region in Japan) Sentan (advanced) Kagaku (science) Gijutsu  (technology) Daigakuin (graduate school) Daigaku (university).

In Hiragana, that would be ほくりくせんたんかがくぎじゅつだいがくいんだいがく。Fun note: there are no spaces between Japanese words, reading Hiragana only would be a headache inducing affair!

And in Kanji: 北陸先端科学技術大学院大学。

Let’s just stick to JAIST, shall we?

On the way to Shirakawago Village. Photo courtsey.

Japan’s Traditional Villages: Shirakawago and Takayama

Last week, we had a class trip to see the UNESCO Heritage Site of Shirakawago Villages. On the way there, we stopped at Takayama (I hope I remember this correctly) for a taste of what was ahead. Takayama is a smaller village of fewer houses, but no less magnificent.

The journey from Kanazawa to Shirakawago took about 3 hours by bus. The journey itself was quite interesting. Driving through the Japanese countryside in autumn is really breathtaking. The trees in the mountain forests are in an array of colours, the mountains themselves are magnificent even on a cloudy day, and we drove through on roads that seemed on the very edge of the mountains, imagine looking out of the window only to see a deep valley below! If you have driven through the Mai Mahiu range on the way to Naivasha or Narok, you know what I am talking about. And that drive lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, but picture it lasting 3 hours. The beauty of the landscape would be every photographer’s dream, Mutua Matheka, are you reading this? I cannot do it justice in my photos.

The magnificent village of Shirakawago in Japan
The magnificent village of Shirakawago in Japan

What is more, the changing seasons means that you can photograph the place all year round. In winter when everything is covered in white (snow); in the spring as the cherry blossoms bloom all over Japan; in the summer as the sun shines bright and in autumn, the current season, when trees are in golden colours. I would love to visit these traditional villages in winter and if my budget allows it, maybe stay for the night.

The river at Shirakawage Village
The river at Shirakawage Village

One thing about Japan is its strictness when it comes to garbage. At the villages, if you have plastic garbage, you have to go back with it. They can take recyclable garbage like cans or bottles, and combustible garbage like paper, but if you have plastic and metal junk, you have to carry it back with you. The whole of Japan is anal about garbage disposal anyway, consequently, it is a very clean country.

The air in the villages is refreshingly cool, clean and crisp. There are some people still living in these villages and you can only envy their simple life, save for the hordes of visitors poking their vehicles into their village every day.

One of the houses in Takayama Village on the way there..
One of the houses in Takayama Village on the way there..

So I have a few pictures of the trip to show to you. My current class consists of fellow foreign students who are also studying Japanese. The pictures are in no way touched up, I have no time or patience to edit pictures, the only thing I did was reduce their size (MB) because they were like 5MB. This greatly reduced their quality, but hope you will still enjoy. View the slide show by clicking on one image.

 

I Cooked!

I landed in Japan on 1st of October and on 1st of November I was having a late lunch with my new friends at the nearby AEON foodcourt when we realized a month had passed already! In that one month, I have become so tired of the school cafeteria meals. So I went shopping for utensils and food to cook.

Generally, I am not a fan of cooking, although I love eating very much. I cook out of necessity and not the mere pleasure in the art of preparing the meal, but for this one time, I was totally excited and couldn’t wait to make my first meal in Japan. I got all my food (rice, fish, onions, tomatoes, etc..) from AEON (very big supermarket), as the fresh fish (food) market is 20 minutes by bus away.

How to prepare the fish? I wondered. I Googled some recipes but some were suggesting I broil it. I had to Google broiling but unfortunately I have neither an oven nor a broiler. That was when I remembered LeoTunapika run by my good friend, at least I could understand the ingredients and methods she uses, and could ask her for clarification if need be. So I decided to stew it, it looked quite simple, stewing fish in coconut milk. However, I did not have coconut milk but you will see how I solved this problem (and ended up ruining the stew) later. As for vegetables, my plan was to sprinkle some of them into the stew so they cook together, save energy, time and at the same time enhancing the stew flavour. Genius! So here is my recipe.

Recipe: Fish in No-Coconot Milk (Serves 2)

Ingredients: fish cut into pieces, onions, tomatoes, carrots, assorted veges, any other thing you want to include.

Ingredients for Fish Stew
Ingredients for Fish Stew

Method

Defrost the fish, and while it is defrosting..

Cut up the onions, tomatoes, etc..

First, fry the onions in low (or is it medium, do whatever feels right) heat

Frying onions
Frying onions in low heat

Next, cut up the tomatoes and carrots and add them when the onions have cooked.

Tomatoes and carrots on a chopping board
Tomatoes and carrots on a chopping board
Trying to do this like a pro.. so here is a close up of chopped carrots haha
Trying to do this like a pro.. so here is a close up of chopped carrots haha

Detour: Do you guys know how hard it is to take pictures while cooking? I nearly dropped my phone into the stew, into the sink or onto the electric cooking pan!

Next, add the chopped stuff into the onions and let them cook for a few minutes.

Cooking
Looks nice, huh?

Do you remember the assorted vegetables? So I got this pack of already chopped veges.. cabbages, carrots, mushrooms and some sea weed that’s a popular vegetable here. I picked a few and added to the pot.

Vegetables
Vegetables

Time to add them in:

Vegetable stew
Vegetable stew

Now, the next step is very critical.

Whatever you do, DO NOT substitute cow milk for coconut milk! I got this idea from home, because from time to time we add milk to fish stew and it is delicious. However, when I added the milk, it went sour immediately, sticking to the sides of the pot. I had come too far so I wanted to know how the end result will taste like.

Salt the fish lightly, then add the pieces into the stew. Let it simmer for a while.

Letting the whole mixture stew
Letting the whole mixture stew for a while until the fish is cooked

Next, cook the rice. No recipe here! Just boil the rice, add some salt and a little oil.

I cannot multitask, generally speaking. I am the exception that proves the rule that all women can multitask. So I prepared the fish first, then the rice. However, it’s better to start with the rice, then as it requires no intervention while cooking, stew the fish so it all cooks around the same time.

After I set the rice to boil, I remembered then that I had some pilau masala I ought to have added to the stew. I added it to the rice instead to add some flavour: Japanese rice is sticky and tasteless, I miss pishori rice.

Pilau masala
Pilau masala

Now it was time to wait for the rice to be ready. I decided to set the table with my new crockery and cutlery. The wine can also be sipped as you wait for the rice to cook.

Fruits are really expensive in Japan. One apple costs like 250 Ksh. The cheapest are bananas at Ksh 150 for 3 bananas! This is bananas!

Setting the table
Setting the table. I included the chopsticks, they are quite an art in themselves.

Finally, bring in the food for that final picture. Serve half, if you are alone, and save the rest for lunch/dinner the following day. Don’t forget to say the grace. In Japan, they say, itadakimas(u). Also, don’t forget to post on Instagram.

Dinner is served
Dinner is served

Verdict: It was average. The milk ruined the sauce, but the fish was tasty. The rice with some masala was OK. All washed down with wine, it was the perfect first meal!

Book Reviews: Hong Kong, The Devil and Miss Pryn, & The Man Who Would Be King

Hong Kong by Stephen Coonts

It has been a long time since I read an action novel. I think it was before Jack Bauer in 24, and the last action novel I read was Robert Ludlum. I read the Bourne books one after another and after that, Sidney Sheldons seemed like child’s play. The complexity of the plots couldn’t match up and I got lost in the plots from time to time, to be honest. When I picked up Hong Kong, I had no expectations so the book didn’t disappoint so much.

Hong Kong by Stephen Koonts
Hong Kong by Stephen Koonts

There is a crisis in Hong Kong in the book, just like it is happening right now in Hong Kong. Protesters swarm into the central business district on the island, after the bank collapses. They want better leadership, they want democracy. And they will take it by force.

In all this one man, Jake Grafton, travels to Hong Kong to investigate the US Ambassador’s involvement in the rebel movement. He goes there with his wife, who is kidnapped by some bad guys. Working with CIA bad boy Tommy Carmellini, Jake Grafton is our Jack Bauer. He blows up bad guys left, right and center, and rescues his wife. The US Government is covertly involved in the rebels’ mission, supplying them with money, weapons and would you guess it, intelligent robots that learn from the environment and kill only the bad, aggressive guys. However, there is a traitor in the rebel movement, but who is it? The traitor reprograms one of the York robot soldiers, which then runs after Jake Grafton in the dying pages of the book, determined to exterminate him. Jack must use brains, brawn and macho bad assery to save himself and set everything alright.

Do the rebels take over Hong Kong? And even if they do, there is still a huge China with resources in terms of a huge military and weapons. What then? Read and find out.

It started out slow but I really enjoyed it towards the end. Wouldn’t mind a part two for those long train journeys, flights or boring Sunday afternoons.

The Devil and Miss Pryn by Paulo Coelho

This is the second book by Paulo Coelho that I am reading, after the Alchemist which I read back in high school. As I am now in my mid-twenties, that was 10 years ago! Coelho has an entire movement behind him now, including one of my best friends, Beautiful Rumi. (She is also into Rumi FYI, just Google, the search for spirituality should not end with Jesus Christ.)

The Devil and Miss Pryn
The Devil and Miss Pryn

Miss Pryn lives in a quiet village town and one day, the Devil arrives in the form of a lonely , middle aged male stranger. He has come to find answers about suffering, answers he will find by performing an experiment on the villagers themselves. He sets the experiment up, and only Miss Pryn knows what it’s all about. It’s a novel about discovering the true nature about ourselves, we are all cowards. We want change, but we are too afraid to get it. We are stuck in inertia etc etc.. you know there is an ambiguous lesson that every Coelho book tries to teach, and for everyone, it will be different. I could totally relate to the cowardice of leaving, I read this book in my last week in Kenya, when I thought that maybe I should never leave. But I had already handed in my resignation, and being jobless in Nairobi is not attractive. For every single day I live here though, I miss my son. Next year, he comes to join me here and maybe then life will be perfect? How do other mothers do this?

This book is a short read and worth the few hours you will spend on it. You might find yourself adding it to your library for future reference, even when you don’t agree with everything the author says. He’s not a god people. Or he is?

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

It is a free e-book that comes with the Moon+ Reader app. It is available on desktop/Android, I don’t know about the Apple Store. #teamAndroidForLife

The Man Who Would Be King Movie adapted from the book
The Man Who Would Be King Movie adapted from the book

I read this short story really, a while ago and realized I forgot to write a review. It is a book about two men who left India on an adventure journey to become Kings. You come to understand why Rudyard Kipling is famous for his storytelling ability, for it is not only about the story itself but also how the story is told. If you ever watched Mowgli, the boy in the Jungle, he wrote the book. He was an Englishman born in India and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

Two men who are friends decide to leave India to become kings in distant lands, which at first seem like fabled lands. However, after many dangerous travels, they come to the lands they first dreamed about and conquer, and become kings (sorry to give away the plot!). But first, how did they manage to make the dangerous journey? Their story is nothing short of amazing.. they were the men who would be kings alright. But like any top position, getting there might be hard but manageable, remaining there is near impossible. Things start going downhill sooner than later.

Highly recommended.

P.S.

I read both ebooks and hard copies. I seem to have discovered a middle ground where my love for printed books is balanced by my love for technology.

 

Hands on with TumaPesa –The MPESA companion

Guest post by  James Wahome.

Once in a while, I might get a request to write about an app, a website,  a phone review.. so I will use the service/app/website/phone etc and write my experience. But in this case, I wasn’t in a position to use Mpesa, seeing as I am halfway across the world in a country with no roaming.

So I asked the requester to do a post and here we are. Hope you will use this app to make your transactions smoother and error free. No one wants to send money to the wrong number! This is also efficient for Paybill Numbers, imagine having to memorize all paybills, and which KPLC number is for pre or post paid.

The Tuma Pesa App:

tuma pesa
tuma pesa

It’s happened to every MPESA user, you urgently need to send money to someone but you don’t have the number off head, just in your Address book, So you end up navigating to your Phonebook, copying the number, navigating back to your app drawer launching the SIM Tool Kit and pasting the number when prompted.

But that’s too much work and often we simply tempt fate and end up sending money to the wrong Number. What about PayBill Numbers and their respective accounts? Well that’s even worse, you copy the PayBill name and account somewhere on a piece of paper maybe and you key them in one by one into MPESA when prompted. You manually have to keep track of all the PayBill numbers and accounts so you can refer to them when you want to use them.

What if you didn’t have to do all that, What if it was as easy and convenient for you as downloading an app that takes care of all you Numbers, PayBills and Accounts? Well, that is what TumaPesa is all about. To use TumaPesa simply download from google play store or click on the following link [TumaPesa Mpesa Companion].

How does it work? Easy, let me walk you through the 3 key features that make TumaPesa revolutionary. Upon install you get a slide introduction of how to use the app. It highlights the key features of the app and directions of use as explained below.

1. TumaPesa loads all your contacts and formats them for you in a nice intuitive list that can be searched by name or number. All the contacts are pulled from both Sim Card and Phone Memory.

Say I want to send cash to Savvy Kenya, well I simply search for her name, click on it and the SIM Tool Kit is opened. In addition to this her Number is copied to the clip board and a pop up of her details appears on the top right corner with her Name and Number. You can transact safely and securely without the fear of sending money to the wrong number.

In the app you search for a contact
In the app you search for a contact
Select the contact and it is loaded to the SIM toolkit
Select the contact and it is loaded to the SIM toolkit
  1. For contacts you send money frequently you have the option of saving them by long pressing on a contact name and they automatically get stored in the Favorites Tab and a star appears next to them indicating they are now in favorites.
Favoriting contacts
Favoriting contacts
  1. For PayBill numbers and accounts you can save a list of them in the PayBill section of the app and use them whenever you need.
Adding paybill numbers
Saving paybill numbers
Saving paybill numbers
Saving paybill numbers

The App is currently only available for Android but an IOS version will be out in the next few weeks so watch out.

Please download the app and give feedback. There are always so many programmers out there willing to make your life easier, so appreciate the effort by downloading the app, it is free, after all!

Kanazawa City

2 Girls 1 Cup: Sights and Sounds from Kanazawa City, Japan

Ha! Another title for the hits (the 2 girls 1 cup part, that is). This post will be about the sights and sounds from my current city of residency.  But first, let me explain where the two girls and their one cup come in.

I have been eating out the entire past month. Raw fish (sashimi), sushi, okonomiyaki, udon, ramen, kare raisu etc. Japanese or Japanese style food. It has been tiring. Occasionally we (my friends and I) try out different restaurants. Chinese. MacDonalds. Indian. Italian. But now I want a simple meal. Ugali, fried eggs, some greens.

So by the end of this week, I am going out shopping. I need 2 pots (seeing as there are no sufurias around) and 1 pan. No actually I need 3 pots – one for ugali, the other for stew, and the last one for vegetables or for brewing tea. While making the list of the tools of trade I will need to start cooking, the 2 pots 1 pan kept leaping around in my mind, which echoed the 2 girls 1 cup video I had heard about some years ago. I think it was back in 2010 when the video first came out.

I never watched it. Despite my best attempts at deep searching the internet, YouTube had already yanked it off and the effort to keep searching for this fascinating video proved too much so I gave up. Everyone who had watched it told me to NEVER ever watch it. There are some things that will haunt you for life. You can never UNSEE this particular video.

It’s actually a porno clip, or rather starts out that way. But the fetishes played out are bizarre. It’s like the horror movie of porn. Before you decide to search for this video, you might want to check out people’s reactions below. They scream but they still keep watching. Note the army guys, there is one who doesn’t blink, doesn’t even move a muscle.. if the clip didn’t move this guy, I shudder what they do/see in the army!

Sights and Sounds from Kanazawa City, Ishikawa

Onwards then, to the crux of this blogpost. Every weekend, my new friends (both international students) go out to see the tourist spots. We got free passbooks so we don’t have to pay entrance fee for the historical sites.

Stepping into these places is like stepping back into time. Some of the sites have been preserved as they were and you can see the level of sophistication with which the Japanese built their homes hundreds of years ago.

We went to the Kenroku-en Garden and Kanazawa Castle. The garden was amazing, but I have quickly realized that I take 1 good photo in 100. So I am going to share photos from my partners in crime, the Red Fox in Japan and Ken-san. Kenroku-en is the 3rd largest park in Japan and it looks amazing in all seasons. In the Fall, this is what we saw. I shall let the pictures speak for themselves.

All images courtsey of Tamar-san (redfoxinJapan). Check out her blog for more of the images. Click on one of the pictures to enter the gallery.

Later, my friends visited the Museum of Contemporary Art but I wasn’t present for that. Here are pictures from that. As well as other sights from the city.

 

We have been to the Oyama Jinja shrine, where I picked out a fortune piece of message for 100¥. A Chinese student explained to me the meaning of the Kanji. Turns out I have the best of luck. I should never have to worry about money, a job or relationships. I believe in fortune tellers. For 300 Yen, you can get to inscribe your prayer on a piece of wood and it is hanged and your prayer could/will come true. See photos below. They will tell this story more than words ever could.

We went to the Higashi Chaya District, this is the street that has persevered through time. We went to the Omochi Ichiba market, where the seafood was still alive, for the most part. Octopus arms still twitching, crabs still moving. You can be assured your food is very fresh, so fresh in fact, it is still alive. We walked to the Samurai District. Kilometers walked on clean, paved streets. Photographs are snapped, architecture is admired, people are watched, the morning sun is soaked, experiences are shared and life appreciated for we too, are building museums for the future. We too, shall be referred to as ancestors. Life is so fleeting, but I am digressing.

Below is a selection of a few pictures from our expeditions, again, courtesy of Tamar. (And 1 or 2 from my gallery, or from Ken-san) I hope in these pictures, you will see just how beautiful Japan really is and share in my new, often breathtaking, scenery.

Stay tuned for more from Japan!

 

My Kigali – CMUR Experience

This is a guest post by Aggie Nyambura, who graduated with a first class in computer science from JKUAT this year, just like I did over 3 years ago. She said I motivated her to graduate sumna cum laude (I am glad that my vanity may have some positive impact on society!). She’s now pursuing her master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Kigali, Rwanda. Yes, the American university has a campus in Kigali for 4 years now, I think. Aggie chatted me up on facebook and wanted me to write about the university so the (relvant) Kenyans can be aware of it. However, I know nothing about the campus so I persuaded her that she ought to write her experience and send me the guest post.

I really enjoyed reading it, she should start her own blog! Anyway, here is the story, straight from the horse’s mouth:

I graduated in June 2014, from (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) JKUAT University with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. Enrolling for a Master’s program was next in my agenda and during my search for Universities offering the Master’s program I had in mind I came across Carnegie Mellon University Rwanda (CMU-R). I first heard about Rwanda CMUR last year during my final year at JKUAT.

If you do a Google search on CMU you will probably get hits on its notable word wide ranking in Computer Science and Technology. What you may also find is the fact that in 2012, CMU opened a new campus in Kigali, Rwanda in addition to the Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, Australia and Qatar campuses. Up until last year, the Rwandan campus only offered Graduate Programs in IT & Engineering which is what I was looking for.

But there are many questions that cross your mind when you hear that the campus is set up in Africa, more so in Rwanda. Such as; is the quality of education the same? Is the tuition cheaper? Why study in Africa if you can go to the US and so on. And so I did my research.

The Kenyan student enrolled in the Inaugural class of 2012 was a great source of insight, as well as direct communication with the University staff. I got particularly interested in the Masters in Information Technology (MSIT) program; the other program, Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering (MSECE) did not exactly fit into what I had in mind and the application process began.

The process was rather involving and took me about 3 months to complete. Being an American University, I was required to sit for a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL) test and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). The entire process was done online; from submitting application details, recommendation letters, interviews (via Skype) and receiving the admission decision. I got my admission for the MSIT program in May 2014, just one month before my undergraduate graduation. I was expected to report for a one month orientation program that would start on July 29th and thereafter classes would officially begin.

As the days went by, I went through a cycle of mixed feelings; excitement to undertake this new journey and sadness that I would be so far away from home. But this didn’t stop me from going. I remember tearing up at the airport as I bid my family and friends good bye; this was on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. When I landed in Kigali, there were some things that struck me. The nicely lit roads, the smooth traffic, the cleanliness, it was definitely a new experience for me.

I came to learn that orientation here is quite different from what we know. In my first year in JKUAT, orientation involved being given campus tours, meeting department heads and the Vice Chancellor’s welcoming speech ceremony. Orientation spanned for an entire week! However, on my first day at CMUR after we had a brief introductory ceremony and a short tour of the University we sat for our first class in the afternoon.

Students from the CMUR Inauguration class on their graduation in July 2014
Students from the CMUR Inauguration class on their graduation in July 2014

The orientation is structured to bring all students at par in terms of computer programming, language skills and other fundamental concepts in computer science. Many of us had come from different Universities with different backgrounds and this made the orientation vital for all of us. From the second day onwards, classes began at 8:30 in the morning and ended at 5:30 pm in the evening every day of the week. The school provided us with lunch so we practically spent all our time in school. We also had fun activities to do such as a day trip to Gashora, a remote town about 2 hours from Kigali, bowling and movie nights.

This became my routine for the one month before classes began officially on August 25th. The American system on which CMUR is based is quite different from what we have come to know. Each of us was assigned an academic advisor who would be one of our professors. This person would be your go to person to consult on academic issues, for career advice and generally to ensure that you are faring well in the program.

Classes start at 9 am every day. One is free to select whichever courses they may want to take and so student’s schedules differ. The quality of education offered is the same as that offered in the other campuses. The professors were previously teaching at the main campus in Pittsburgh. It is also possible to take classes in other campuses like Silicon Valley by having the sessions streamed live to Rwanda and even then, one is expected to put in as much effort as if they were in the campus offering the course. The major advantage of studying here in Rwanda is the 50% scholarship offered to all East African citizens on the tuition fee. Because the teaching is the same as those of other CMUR campuses, the tuition fee is the same; so having 50% paid for reduces the financial load significantly.

During our CMU welcoming dinner with the faculty and staff
During our CMU welcoming dinner with the faculty and staff

The programs offered at CMUR are very intensive; you learn by doing so at any one point you will have several projects or assignments you are working on. There is a wide pool of resources available to help you succeed, from the experienced professors, the Teaching Assistants (TAs as we like to call them) and the students from the preceding class. The school literally provides us with everything we need, from laptops to free gym membership; we have it all. One interesting fact is that for the first time ever since the inaugural class, I happen to be the only girl admitted to the program from a class of 28 students. I hope that next year’s intake will have a better representation of both genders.

I am still adjusting to living in Kigali and how different it is from life in Nairobi. Take for instance the public buses used to move around the city. Bus fares are relatively cheap within Kigali with the furthest bus ride costing between 200-250 Rwandan Francs, about Ksh.30. Motos, boda bodas as we know them, are also quite common here but with the requirement that both the driver and passenger wear helmets.

One interesting observation was the absence of big shopping stores and supermarkets like we have back in Nairobi. Shopping for things can be daunting as their stock supplies are limited in addition to the high prices for Kenyan brands. However, there are a few Nakumatt outlets in the CBD. Kigali is a very secure city. Policemen patrol the areas at all hours of the day. I have walked back to my house as late as 1 am with no fear at all.

All in all, CMUR is like one small community of people who share big dreams and want to transform the world. I have seen myself grow in so many ways since I came here and I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Every day I learn something new about myself and push myself to new heights I never thought I’d ever reach; all thanks to CMU.

Our visit to Gashora
Our visit to Gashora

For more photos click here.

I Kissed a Boy and I Liked It

I never do this. Luring you to read posts with a title like that, which will have nothing to do with the body. So I am sorry (or perhaps not) if you expected the tale of an exotic African girl meeting her Samurai prince and having a happily ever after beautiful family of biracial babies. (Although they make very beautiful people, just check out the Google search and don’t ask me any questions like why was I googling that?)

Keisy Myumi is half black half Japanese
Keisy Myumi is half black half Japanese

How is Japan?

Well, that was the original title of the post. My friends & acquaintances, my internet friends & acquaintances, my family; all ask, how is Japan? This is such a big question requiring an encyclopedia to answer comprehensively, but I almost always say, Japan is good. And it is good. But oh, so very different.

The Food

The food is the first strange thing that you will encounter. No, sushi is not an everyday meal here, so even if I had tasted sushi at the Japanese embassy, I was in no way prepared for the food here. I had arrived at my hotel after midnight, and that night I had a snack I had carried from the plane with a can of Cocacola from the vending machine. (don’t throw away your snacks if you can’t eat them on the plane, you might need them if you’re travelling to an unfamiliar place and don’t know how to ask, “レストラン は どこ ですか”)- Sorry but have to practice my Japanese. Google guys. ]

I signed up for buffet breakfast and when I entered the dining room the following morning, I had a wide choice of nothing familiar to choose from. The boiled eggs had not been boiled but dunked in warm water so they were still very very runny. The tiny sausages were halfway done (do you say rare) so they tasted raw. I couldn’t try the rice because I don’t usually have rice for breakfast. There were several dishes that looked dark and suspicious. Tofu was faintly tasteless. The omelette was also “rarely” done. About the only thing I could have was coffee and a piece of bread.

A typical Japanese breakfast
A typical Japanese breakfast. Image from whoever has watermarked it!

Later, after the International Students Opening Ceremony at the campus, our sensei took our group of 5 for lunch at the school cafeteria. She said, pick anything you want, I will pay. So I picked a number of small bowls haha.. only now do I realize that a typical Japanese meal (lunch/supper) consists of:

  • a variety of side dishes to choose from (your veges and salad will be here in small bowls)
  • one main protein dish (usually chicken/pork/beef/fish coated in some flour and fried or cooked another way). But the underlying taste & smell in all of them is fish, I taste it in everything, even the rice. Maybe not the rice.
  • (miso) soup
  • and of course, rice!

Below is my lunch tray in recent times (more pictures of food on my Instagram):

My lunch tray has a bowl of rice, a side dish of some seaweed I think, and lamb cutlets. The soup didn't fit in the picture.
My lunch tray has a bowl of rice, a side dish of some seaweed I think, and lamb cutlets. The soup didn’t fit in the picture.

So rice is had for breakfast, lunch and supper. And you would think it’s your tasty basmatti rice, or Pakistani rice, or Mwea Pishori, or biryani rice, or those tasty aromatic ones… but no! It’s plain, saltless and tasteless. I guess that is how our ugali must taste to them. Oh ugali, how I miss thee.

Ugali
Image from http://www.e3kids.com/2011/01/29/day-at-jomvu/ who seemed to have liked it.

 

Later as we ate, I asked our sensei why they were serving their food in a million small bowls. She said the Japanese don’t want the tastes of the dishes to mix hence they have them in several bowls. While my entire life, I have spent it mixing my tastes. I want my rice, my meat, my soup, my vegetables all in one plate, thank you! The mixed tastes produce a new taste that buoys the culinary exercise to sensational heaven. I want my starter, main dish and dessert all on one giant plate.

Let’s not forget they eat with chopsticks. I am now dextrous in my handling of chopsticks, I am finding it easier to eat noodles with chopsticks than with a fork. Maybe I should have tried a hand at surgery, hmmm.

I should probably start cooking. But I am lazy; I haven’t bought the crockery and cutlery needed to do the cooking, and I have no idea where to source fresh ingredients from, perhaps I can just try buying them from AEON, the Nakumatt of Japan (and East Asia?).

This post is turning out to be all about food, but I don’t know what is more basic to man than food. Even emotional needs come second. However, I have now kind of adjusted to the food but more tales to come as I sample more and more raw food. Octopus, you are next.

Octopus soup. However, this is a Korean dish, strictly speaking. Image from https://oneforkonespoon.wordpress.com/tag/live-octopus/
Octopus soup. However, this is a Korean dish, strictly speaking. Image from https://oneforkonespoon.wordpress.com/tag/live-octopus/

The Culture

There is not much of the culture shock though. When I am in the campus, it’s the same as any other campus in Kenya. Okay maybe not like most public unis but Strathmore is surely world class. Automated doors are the norm everywhere in Japan. They also like sliding doors in apartments, the doors separate rooms from each other or you can open them to create one big room.

Are they racists, you are wondering? No.

Sure, they are reserved and don’t talk much, and especially not in English. But they are very friendly once you get past the shyness. The first night, as I squinted at the map of my hotel showing directions from the station (it was 500 meters from the station), I realized I couldn’t even tell my right from my left. There was a Japanese girl who was also heading to her hotel so I asked her for directions. She checked the address on  Google maps on her phone and took me there. In school, there is this girl who has been helping us open bank accounts and such other things that require a detailed knowledge of Japanese to understand the intricacies in the terms and conditions.

Kenroku-en park in Kanazawa.
Yours truly poses with Japanese ladies wearing a Kimono at Kenroku-en park in Kanazawa. No stop asking if I am wearing pants.

Supermarkets attendants will gladly show you the aisle you are looking for, if you know the name of the item in Japanese! People will sit next to you on the bus. Old women at bus stops will chat you up in Japanese as you nod and say, hai.. hai (yes, yes). Suited men in cars might stare leeringly, happened once, don’t mean to propagate the stereotype of the perverted Japanese businessman. Waiters and waitresses will not ignore you or serve you last. The City Hall gave us international students a Student Pass that gives us free entrance to tourist sites and destinations in Ishikawa Prefecture (province). The Japanese have been very welcoming. As long as you are here legally of course, and have signed a number of forms. bureaucracy is everywhere.

In the end, people are people everywhere. Underneath that rainbow of skin colours, we are individuals who are moody, happy, extroverts, introverts, generous, mean etc. Whether you are Japanese or Kenyan is irrelevant when I start interacting with you as person.

They also don’t say hi with hugs or handshakes. A bow will do. Below are the detailed instructions of how to bow as you say Konnichiwa. The lower the bow the more you respect the person.

 

Japanese greeting
Japanese greeting. Image from http://www.hereisjapan.net

However, we are at a university. Moreover, we are foreigners. So no one will get offended if your bow is not exactly 45 degrees from the point of origin (I still remember my maths) or that for a woman, your hands are not clasped at the front. Men keep their hands by their sides.

At the Supermarket

Well, it is a supermarket like any other, we have supermarkets in Kenya you know. The only difference, as is the difference everywhere else except the university, language. Everything is in Japanese. To shop for things, you have to look at pictures because even the little Japanese we have learned can’t help us. We have learned 9 basic Kanji characters; to read a regular Japanese text you need at least 2,000 characters. It’s a long journey that started with a single step back when… digressing.

They do a lot of sampling of food at the supermarket. Lots of food to sample so you can buy the product. If you want plastic bags for your packaging, you pay for it.

Even at tourist centers, you would be lucky to find someone who speaks English. The booklets we were given of the tourist spots: all in Japanese, sigh. But I am enjoying learning a new language and I love Kanji, for some reason.

The Bus

The buses, like the trains, all run on a schedule. While we are still “experimenting” with NFC payments (tap to pay, rather than swipe) with the cards such as the Equity ones, here most payments at the bus, campus cafeteria & bookshop are NFC. You tap to enter the bus and it deducts the required amount when you exit having calculated your distance. If you don’t have a card, you drop your fare into a coin eating machine. But fare is very expensive, a distance of 20-50 bob in Kenya you will pay about 200. And there is no bargaining.

What else is different .. ah, tissue. You open a bank account and it comes with a pack of pocket tissues. Someone is giving you a poster announcing an event, the give you the poster +tissue. Old people asking you to join an organ donation organization, here have some pocket tissues please. See last Saturday, we went to downtown Kanazawa (which is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture) to see the sights. That trip is probably the topic of the next post so don’t be lured by whatever title I give it.

Now, as we waited for the bus, there were many old people in yellow t-shirts giving out pocket tissues, sweets and a poster written in Japanese, of course. However, there was a link to the website (yeah websites have Roman alphabet addresses if you are wondering) and it said something about organ donation. Nevertheless, I haven’t checked it out yet, but I am open to the idea of organ donation. Once I die, not while I am still breathing!

Which brings me to the other thing that is different. I know they say that Japan is full of old people, but you have to see it to see what they mean. Old people, very old people, and very very old people are here, but they are not indoors. They walk about, they take buses on their own, sometimes they will have a walker to assist them but they are independent. They shop, they go to the park etc. To be sure, I saw about half as many old people as I saw the middle aged, young and children.

An elderly couple in Japan
An elderly couple in Japan. Image from http://www.tofugu.com

In Kenya, very old people will appear in the news just having made it to that age of say, 90+. It’s an exception in a country where life expectancy is 61. A 61 year old Japanese is a youth with 40 or more years left to enjoy!

I am definitely liking it here, but of course I miss my loved ones. The loneliness creeps upon you in the evening as you watch YouTube clips and surf endlessly so the night is shorter. But I came to the realization that if I keep on sulking it won’t even matter because I am already here and need to make the best of it! I need to enjoy Japan and all it has to offer.

More to come. (Subscribe link is somewhere at the top right on desktop and somewhere below the post on mobile).

 

Transacting Online Safely

There has been and will continue to be an increase in online trade in Kenya.  Sites I have used or my friends use include OLX (good deals among the online classifieds), Mimi (Julie Gichuru’s dress shop), and jumia.  There are many other shops online, I think there was even one where you could do supermarket (Naivas, Tuskys or Nakumatt) shopping and have it delivered to your location. While some sites sell goods directly to the customer, others like olx are not involved in the actual sale of items. Thus some people have used this opportunity to perpetuate fraud.

Keep calm and Stay Safe online
Keep calm and Stay Safe online

 

It’s to this end that OLX partnered with COFEK (Consumer Federation of Kenya) and the ICT Authority in Kenya to launch a one month awareness campaign for the general public to learn about online safety.

The campaign is named, “Kaa Ridhoo”! I don’t know who came up with that slogan surely, but the importance of the message should not be lost.

I have blogged before about staying safe online, OLX has guidelines for using its site, including a page for reporting suspicious ads or sellers. Just click on the Contact Us page to file a report. They then work with the local police to investigate and arrest any of those suspicious individuals, especially dealing with cars and electronics.

Have you had any experience of fraud when shopping online locally, and how did you deal with it?

 

Winter Is Coming & Other Related Stories

In 2011, I spent some 3 months in Rwanda, which is famous for its beautiful women, one thousand hills, cleanliness and a tough, lean president. A lot of my friends and readers told me to get them Rwandese girls when I was going back to Kenya, as if girls are just おみやげ (souvenirs) that I could just put in my bag and distribute them to friends when I got back! Anyway, I have been here a week and I know what you guys want me to send you or come back with cheap  Japanese cars! Am I right guys? Especially you three: Mackel Tisa (Subaru?), Woolie (do you want a Prius) and Alex (do you want an Allex?).

A toyota Alex
A Toyota Alex

The bad news is, there are no abandoned cars on the streets.. I thought I would just find one with keys left in the ignition and drive off. Ok , I am kidding. A new car here is expensive, new baby cars will cost you like 1,000,000 Yen (the conversion rate to Kenya shillings is almost 1:1). For secondhand cars, I have not yet seen a used car lot around, but that could be because I am in a “rural” city. The worse news is, I can’t do business/any part-time job or I will lose my student visa and scholarship. So the business has to wait, patience tomodachi (friends).

I have been in Japan for exactly one week now. I haven’t seen much of it, because I have spent most of the days in campus, getting oriented with the life, filling hundreds of forms and starting Nihongo (Japanese) classes. I have also been shopping for stuff I need from EON, which is a huge supermarket chain in East Asia. Everything in Japanese so thank God for pictures, because they show you or give you a clue of what’s inside the pack. Also, a few international brands for beauty products like Nivea, Lux give you an idea of what you’re buying.

It is autumn, which means the landscape is dotted with trees that turn orange, red, auburn, purple and various other dazzling colours. The weather has been great, except for a couple of days when it rained non-stop. It gets warm, like 26deg. No need for a sweater or blanket at night. But winter is coming. And I hear it could get to zero or sub-zero temperatures. The campus of Kanazawa University (金沢大学) will be covered in snow. While I am dreading the cold temperatures, I am looking forward to snow.

The sign reads: Welcome to Kanazawa Daigaku
The sign reads: Welcome to Kanazawa Daigaku. Click to enlarge

In the meantime, I am really enjoying the walk to school in the morning and evening, takes about 20 minutes from where I stay. It’s a hostel for international students. In your room, there’s a study desk, bed, fridge, wardrobe, several shelves and bathroom with a bathtub and (normal) toilet.

 

This is my study table
This is my study table

The international house has students from all over the world studying in various universities in Kanazawa City. And it’s located 1 block away from EON, a large supermarket.

Ishikawa International House where I am currently staying
Ishikawa International House where I am currently staying

Below are several photos of the campus. Enjoy! Click on the images to see the full view and scroll through the gallery. Also, follow me on Instagram for more pics..