Christine Spetz's Blog
May 3, 2007 — “There’s a muzungu!”
Here, I have no name. I am simply ‘the white person.’ Though many Rwandans use this word to describe Caucasian foreigners, its literal meaning is ‘walking lost as if drunk or confused.’
Honestly, I couldn’t have picked a better way to describe myself since arriving in Kigali, having lost count of the number of times I’ve tripped while walking along the city’s rutted, hole-filled streets or the dozens of Rwandans I’ve encountered sporting either a goofy smile of awe as I drink in the unfamiliar scenes around me, or a puzzled look of confusion as I try to get from one location to another, never quite sure who I should pay when taking public transport.
Unlike in North America, where commuters pay the driver while quickly passing him or her on the way to their seats – located in a wide, spacious interior – Rwandans pay a sort of ‘middle-man,’ who sits with them in the back of a large, crowded van. But instead of paying the ‘middle-man’ immediately after boarding the van, passengers do so a few minutes before descending from its interior in order to let the driver know they want to get off at the next stop.
Interestingly enough, minibuses (as they are referred to in Rwanda) are not buses at all, but large vans fixed with four or five bench-like seats. Attached to each one is a smaller foldable chair capable of being effortlessly lifted up or folded down, so as to allow for as many passengers as possible to squeeze into an already tight space. Though the vans have been designed to fit no more than 15 passengers, it’s rare to see less than 25 crammed in at any one time – except, of course, during those brief moments when the ‘middle-man’ yanks open the sliding metallic door and hops down from the interior of the vehicle, ushering one group of people out and another group in to the van’s hot, sticky core.
For those who prefer a little more physical freedom while traveling, motorcycles are a welcome alternative. Though slightly more expensive than a minibus – 40 to 60 cents American as opposed to 20 – motorcycles are quick, easy to get, and both exhilarating and terrifying. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a cool breeze on your arms and face as you speed down a concrete street, row upon endless row of houses and stores on one side, and rolling green hills on the other. There’s also nothing quite as shocking as the realization that the man driving your motorcycle is gearing up to squeeze you and this questionable machine between a parked car and a large, dilapidated van driving through a street teeming with people, many of whom give little notice to the steady stream of vehicles passing them by as they dart from one side of the street to the other.
It was by way of a motorcycle that Solange and I arrived this morning at the second-hand clothing market, where we bought sheets and blankets for the group of new students arriving in a few days.
Walking into the market – located in an airless, semi-dark, concrete building – is like entering into an underground world, where row upon uneven row of clothing and bedding create an impenetrable maze-like atmosphere, both stifling and oppressive. In-between rows of clothing – some no wider than the length of my arm, are dozens of men, women and pre-adolescent children. With barely enough room to stand, many remain erect, waiting expectantly for another body to enter the labyrinth, hopeful that a purchase among thousands will be made at their small booth, piled impossibly high with pale, worn fabric. In most areas space is so limited many people sit in the middle of their pile, some with eyes half-closed as their sweaty bodies rival the sauna-like heat. Like the paradox of the poor rich man who is unhappy despite his opulence, the clothing market is like an absurd underground world allowing passage only to those who first ascend a set of chipped, yellowish-brown stairs where, on the last step, a man sits – his legs amputated to the knees.
May 2, 2007 — An habitual morning chill
Before falling asleep at night I can hear the harsh, scratchy sound of a cat’s hungry meow and the spine-chilling howl of wild dogs, echoing off the city’s many rolling hills. Every so often a large truck rattles by, its abused wheels bouncing precariously along the uneven dirt road outside.
Sleep is not easily had in this strange climate, almost dizzyingly warm in the afternoon and curiously cool in its pre-dawn hours. As a result, I’ve spent my first few nights in Kigali curled into a tight ball, a thin blanket wrapped tightly around my body. Though the first few hours of the morning are slightly warmer, I’ve become accustomed to donning a sweater at this time of day, eager to rid myself of what has become an habitual early morning chill.
Perhaps this is why I was less surprised than I should have been when Claude announced yesterday morning that Mary, the cook, was making soup for breakfast. Excited to warm my chilled body I eagerly filled a large, shallow bowl with a dark broth containing thick noodles, thin slices of carrot, and small pieces of jalapeño peppers. A few minutes later my face was a glowing hot pink, my nose was running, and my mouth felt like it was on fire. Swallowing the last spoonful of this spicy dish, my eyes searched in desperation for a tall glass of cool water.
What I found instead was a hot cup of steaming tea. With tears nearly running down my face I quickly drank the strong liquid, impatiently pulling off the thick, blue sweater I had tightly wrapped around my shoulders, now pulsating with an almost unnatural heat.
Though Mary’s soup had cured me of my morning chill, it was not quite strong enough to prevent me from getting sick, and I awoke the next morning dizzy and nauseous, unable to do little more than lie in bed as the slightest twitch made my head spin. Worried that I might have malaria, due to the dozen or so itchy little mosquito bites around my ankles, I was relieved when Shelley came into my room and told me that I had an appointment with “the best doctor in town,” also known as a Belgian man of about fifty accessible only to those patients with status and/or money. Ironically, being a minority in Africa connotes privilege.
A few hours later Shelley, Solange and I arrived at the Belgian embassy – a beautiful off-white building gated by a tall, metal fence and guarded by soldiers holding machine guns. For the next hour we waited as a stream of men and women, one with a small baby sleeping on her bosom and another bejeweled and dressed to the nines, entered and exited an open wooden door, through which I could see a man in a tailored, beige suit slowly pacing back and forth as he repeatedly raised his right hand to his mouth, inhaling deeply at the exact moment his lips met the tip of a long, white cigarette. Quickly filling his lungs to capacity he then briskly, almost impatiently, pulled the cigarette from his mouth, a cloud of chemical-filled smoke billowing around his pale, aged face which he occasionally lifted in haste to glance at the overcast sky. Watching him through half-closed eyes, I realized with a bit of shock that he’s the first person I’ve seen smoking since arriving in this congested, over-populated city.
A few minutes later I entered another small room where a brisk, Belgian doctor took my blood pressure and listened to my heart before writing me a prescription for fifteen little white pills, which he seemed confident would help my body adjust to Rwanda’s high altitude (between 1,500 and 2,500m). He also gave me strict instructions to take my malaria pills at night with oily foods instead of in the morning with a fat-free granola bar, as I was accustomed to doing.
Eager to follow his instructions precisely, Shelley, Solange and I made our way to an American-style grocery store downtown, where we stocked up on black olives, peanut butter and canned tuna in oil.
April 30, 2007 — Arrival in Kigali
This morning I woke up shrouded in a beautiful, sheer net, punctured with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of small, pin-like holes. Attached to a small hook at the top of a high ceiling, eight bamboo sticks fanned out the seemingly endless folds of my mosquito net.
Outside my window, somewhere in a fully bloomed, dark green tree a group of birds sang a melody, each greeting the rising sun in a slightly different tune. In the distance, a rooster made its last call before retiring for the day.
Parting the gauzy folds surrounding my narrow, but comfortable bed, I slowly sat up, my feet lightly tapping the floor for the flip-flops I had kicked off the night before. Without them, the deep red flooring of my bedroom, painted one too many times, turns the soles of my feet an odd mixture of burgundy and crimson.
I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda yesterday afternoon after nearly 36 hours of travel. But my first experience with African culture and its reputably friendly and easy-going inhabitants occurred just before the third, and last, plane trip of my two-day journey. Seated only somewhat comfortably in the window seat I had requested, I half-listened to the pilot’s predictable pre-flight speech - or so I thought. His last few words good-naturedly advised the few dozen passengers to “chill, then sit back, and relax.”
Nearly three hours later, I was burped from the plane’s belly into the “heart of Africa” – otherwise known as the Congo and the few tiny countries surrounding its borders. To my right and left, dozens of sloping hills seemed to rise and fall in unison with my own, shallow breathing. Deliberately slowing my pace, I looked up into the bright blue sky, inviting the warm sun to kiss my pale, sun-deprived cheeks.
While I waited in the airport for Solange and Shelley (a Congolese and a Canadian who work for the Rwanda Initiative), I chatted with a man of about 25. Though he was the only Rwandan who ventured to actually speak with me, dozens of eyes followed my every move and a young girl in a bright yellow shirt, smiled shyly but expectantly, as she held out her small, delicate hand minutes earlier.
After leaving the airport with Solange and Shelley, I spent the rest of the afternoon speeding through the streets of Kigali in a dark taxi, drinking in the sights and sounds of a country undoubtedly poor - hundreds upon thousands of houses perched on a seemingly endless array of hills, interspersed with small, age-old stores and bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads.
So many people walk in Rwanda - some with packages and pots balanced on their heads, others with small babies attached to an exposed breast. Many cross the street without looking, contently oblivious to the many surrounding vehicles, whose drivers swerve only at the last possible moment to avoid a fatal collision.
A few hours later I was semi-settled in my new home. Large and spacious, it’s situated in a lively neighborhood filled with children, motorbikes and the sound of indecipherable conversation. Just a few steps away, there’s a Mexican restaurant where, oddly enough, I ate my first meal in Rwanda. The vegetarian burrito, fried tortilla chips and sprite – served in a tall bottle, with a thin, lime-green neck – were the best I’ve ever tasted.
As Shelly, Roxy (another student from Carleton) and I ate and chatted, the sun quickly set behind the hills of Kigali, casting a soft pink glow on the surface of each rolling crest. Below the second floor balcony where we sat, dozens of small children played as their parents and relatives ate with friends, some obviously visitors like me. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve seen about one ‘muzungu’ – white person – for every hundred or so Rwandan. Being Sunday, I expect this number will multiply tenfold by tomorrow, as there are nearly a million people living in Kigali alone.
A few hours after supper, while sitting at the dining room table, I saw my first lizard. The really small ones are about the length of my thumb, with tails no thicker than the stroke of a pen, and with heads the circumference of an unsharpened pencil. Though their two, stout arms and slightly more elongated hind legs are but a few centimeters in length, these emaciated-looking creatures are incredibly fast, capable of scurrying the length of a metre-long ruler in but a few short seconds.
How fast, I wonder, do the ones the size of my hand, from forefinger to palm, move?