“What an opportunity–to live in Africa, to have your own small piece of this incredible continent…it’s different. And for you, probably very difficult, coming from America. But, you’ll see. You’ll leave and want to come back. Rwanda is a special place. And you are doing good work. Yes, what an opportunity.”
Do you believe that sometimes, instead of our dearest and closest loved ones, it’s actually complete strangers who gives us tidbits of extraordinary wisdom that we didn’t even know we were looking for?
I heard this encouraging and perspective-loaded sentiment from an old man with a white beard on a bus. Typical, right?
I had picked up a package from Jessica, did my weekly internet, and was meandering home. I recognized the guy who runs the internet cafe on the large white express bus (I usually pay the extra 50 cents for the more spacious and expedient transport) and amidst explaining how I was participating in the Kigali Peace Marathon at the end of May, the old man next to me asked why I liked to run. Before I knew it, this very old Rwandan man (en transit from Arusha, Tanzania)–who resides full time in Vancouver as an oil businessman–was speaking all the right words in all the right places. He went on at length about how Africa is a unique place–there is nowhere in the world like it, he said. He actually reminded me a lot of one of my new favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith (thanks to TL Brown who sent me two of his books!).
Smith has an entire fictional series called the Ladies No.1 Detective Agency (I WOULD like something like this…) that centers around the only woman detective in Botswana. The series is wonderfully mysterious, but what I enjoy most is his beautifully worded insights on African culture. And he would know. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has spent most of his life between Scotland and parts of Southern Africa. He somehow captures the continent with just enough grace and truth, without overgeneralizing or over-idealizing (as it can be easy to do).
“….I think I can say that I had never been happier in my life. We had found a country where people treated one another well, with respect, and where there were values other than the grab, grab, grab which prevails back home. I felt humbled, in a way…people suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others. When I first heard African people calling others–complete strangers–their brother or sister, it sounded odd to my ear. But after awhile I knew exactly what it meant and I started to think the same way…I was learning lessons. I had come to Africa and I was learning lessons.”
Strangely, I read this from Smith’s book Tears of the Giraffe the same day the man on the bus exclaimed at what a blessing I have in living and working in Rwanda. The world appears to be aligning, and so this week I’ve found myself in a spirit of gratitude for where I live, the people I live with, and the job I get to do. I could write forever and a day on the challenges and difficulties, and often, the frustrations as an American in Rwandan culture (why are you staring at me? why are you touching my hair? why are you laughing as I try to speak your language…). This whole living in Africa thing has already been one of the most difficult things that I’ve done in my life. I’m so far from the people I love, I’m alone, and I’m an outsider. However, it’s been equally rewarding. When you open your eyes, really open them, you began to really see.
- I love the way Rwanda wakes up. As day breaks, and yellow and oranges filter in through my wood window, goats and cows move even before the farmers manage to get out the door. I know it’s time to leave bed when babies start crying. If it’s a school day, I roll out around 5:30. On weekends, all bets are off–I may just play it lazy and stay curled in my sheets until–GASP–8:00 am.
- I love the way old women greet…and hug…and well….everything they do. I’ve joked that on my bad days, it’s the old mamas that have kept me here. They often wear the most mis-matched African fabrics; they’ll put oranges, blacks, pinks, and yellows together with an assortment of crazy patterns and yet, it looks like a perfectly constructed outfit. Hello, African fashion. Their hands, especially if they are farmers (which, in my village, most are) are caked with the brown soil of earth and show all the signs of aging. This usually contrasts greatly with their faces; some of the oldest mamas don’t look all that old; they have this vibrancy that shines outwardly for all to see. They look you in the eye when grabbing you to say hello and when they smile, you can just feel their spirit. Occasionally, a tooth (or several) will be missing, or the brownish-yellow sorghum will line their gums, but warmness undoubtedly engulfs you in their embrace. When I’m running and don’t usually stop for hugs (if I did, I would never be in shape) they hold both hands in the air as if praising God, and exclaim, “yes, mama!” That’s right. Mama. Like I said, LOVE THEM.
- I love the kids. This isn’t particularly Rwandan specific, but absolutely nothing beats seeing some of my favorite kiddos on the road. They’ll scream (seriously) “IMPANO!!!‘, run like it’s the last day on earth, and when they get close, I say, “yambi’ (Swahili for ‘hug’) and they fall right into you. Baracka, my neighbor and 3 year old bestie, specifically, is the cutest kid there ever was. I could right a book about how great he is and it still wouldn’t do justice for what he’s like and what it’s like being with him. He wears this old Cars shirt, talks at the speed of lightning (I understand abotu 6% of what he says), and smiles endlessly. I can’t believe how adorable he is: currently he’s in Kindergarten and learning some serious English vocabulary. This includes words like, fingers, table, milk, cow, and head. We practice. A lot. His parents joke that he’ll come to America with me. All I want to say is seriously, YES PLEASE.
- I love ichai and plantains. I drink at least 2 cups a day. And, among my group of education volunteers, I was awarded the following superlative: Most likely to win an igitoche (plantain) eating contest. Enough said.
- I love visiting people. Besides football, Rwanda’s favorite pastime is visiting family and friends. You can spend hours doing this, it’s culturally so beautiful: it’s putting the people you love first in your life. You go and you just sit and talk. Expect food. Maybe cards. But if you don’t do it, you certainly aren’t Rwandan. It transcends all boundaries of class: the rich powers that be in Kigali do it, and the rural farmer, barely scarping buy, do it as well. Wear your nicest clothes; you’ll be in public so you best look nice. How far this is from the world of facebook, Iphones, and twitter. I love all that stuff, and you can ask anyone, I love being connected. But, when you strip all of that stuff away, I’ve found myself more connected than I have ever been before. When you take all of that away, you simply have people. Rwandans practice that. Religiously. And so, I love spending 5 hours on a Saturday afternoon, walking the road, visiting my community. And to boot, when you leave the house you visited, they accompany you back out to the road, sometimes all the way back to your house. Now that’s hospitality.
- I love church on Sundays. Granted, I don’t like the often 5 hour services. That’s just…a really long time. But, the dancing and expressions of love completely make up for it. With the rhythmic sound of the drum (or the new keyboard like my church!) both men and women move their hands, arms, backs, legs, and feet in a cohesive movement. They dance with their whole bodies. The dust of the floor rises. The small holes in the battered tin roof shine light on them and for a moment, it’s like God is looking down at us. It’s unbelievably moving. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself choked up watching this all unfold before my eyes. This is what praising God looks like. I’ve imitated the traditional dance with my students in class (after obnoxiously trying to teach the ‘macarena’ without music…FAIL) and they just laughed. I was terrible at African Dance in Ghana (yes, I’m still bitter about BARELY passing after essentially failing my final) and apparently the same is true in Rwanda. Still, I love it all the same.
It’s uplifting to gather and reflect on what makes this place beautiful. Smith writes,
“this is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind us what it is to be human.”
Rwanda is far, far from perfect. And yet, in a week where I talked about relationships, gay marriage, and sex in some of my classes, ran for 90 minutes straight into parts of Rwanda where a white person has never before been seen, shared tea with my neighborhood kids, helped prepare beans in a mud shack along the road in my village, and hugged a record number of ‘mamas’, I mean it when I say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.