Andrea Thompson's Blog
August 14, 2007 — Let’s talk about sex...
It occurred to me recently that with only my blog to go on you might think I don’t do any work around here.
That and I’ve been told that being a filmmaker isn’t work anyway.
Making a documentary is a lot of work, luckily for me it’s also a lot of fun. The two are not mutually exclusive, which, if I’m being honest, is exactly the reason I chose my line of work.
As a filmmaker in Rwanda I get to spend my days playing with cameras and computers, talking to interesting people, traveling all over the country and learning as much as is humanly possible (in two and a half months).
Not a bad gig, I know.
But I also have to sift through hours of tape, almost all in Kinyarwanda, and hear some really sad stories about the status of women in this country. I have to write convincing letters and have even more convincing meetings with the people in charge of hospitals and medical centres to let me shoot there. And, and this is why it’s important to love what you do, I have to lay awake at night wondering how to make all of this into an educational but still, very importantly, entertaining documentary.
The biggest challenge so far has been just that, figuring out just how I’ll piece together some of the amazing footage and interviews we’ve managed to collect.
When I got here I was convinced that in this secretive, not to mention religious culture, one of the most challenging film subjects we could tackle would be sex. But Rwanda’s status as the most densely populated in Africa, with a birthrate of an average of 6 children per woman, meant family planning and contraception were topics we couldn’t ignore.
And they aren’t being ignored in Rwanda. There are countless people doing amazing work to educate the population, women in particular, about their sexual rights. From the national government to the UN bodies working on gender I have seen impressive strides to provide contraception to the women of this country. But it is the grassroots efforts that have really blown me away.
My favourites by a long shot are group of medical students from the National University of Rwanda who spend their afternoons and weekends traveling to village health and community centres to give information sessions on birth control to groups of women and youth. Their dedication is incredible, especially given their course load, and their result is an impressive example of empowerment in it’s truest sense.
It’s a word we throw around too often but in this case I believe empowerment really applies. Women who’ve been told birth control pills cause cancer, IUDs can escape from the uterus and pierce your heart, hormone injections will dry them up “down there” are treated to the truth instead. The students explain the real side effects but also the real benefits of spacing apart births and protecting against sexually transmitted diseases.
Most women seem to know the information already but it’s often been so biased by stigma and rumour that it takes the students’ “tell it like is” approach to help them realize they have a right to something very important: choice.
And what remains particularly striking for me personally, and for the entertainment factor of the film that I have to constantly consider (remember that laying awake at night business?) is that these sessions are fun.
Sometimes it’s not until later, sitting in the editing studio with one of my generous colleagues translating the jokes for me that I understand but usually I don’t even need the help. When a young guy stands laughing in front of a group of women, faking an erection with a wooden penis you don’t need to speak Kinyarwanda to get it.
Some things are just funny.
And that’s what I loved most about the work these students do. They acknowledge that talking about sex is a bit taboo, a bit awkward, a bit embarrassing even, but they don’t let that stop them.
The result is amazing.
On Friday, I stood in the back of the room as two of the students, Josepha and Jean Claude, held up the phoney phallic and snapped the sample condom into place. For a few minutes, I totally forgot we didn’t speak the same language.
I just turned to the women beside me and we laughed.
August 10, 2007— The road to full...
Sam, Valentin, and I set off for a shoot near Butare this morning with Rich behind the wheel.
The three were set to arrive at the house at 7:30am and me, being my disorganized self, was barely dressed and ready when they arrived.
No time for breakfast I’d told myself, though by the time we’d reached the outskirts of Kigali I’d already begun to regret skipping the most important meal of the day.
I needn’t have worried. When we arrived in the historic city of Nyanza, and I later learned Sam’s hometown, we stopped at a dairy called The Milk House.
The smell of grilled meat hit me like a wall as we walked in and before I’d even managed to find a seat a brochette was thrust into my hand. I ate a few pieces, realized it was beef liver and traded for goat.
A waitress asked akonje? ashyshye? (hot or cold? in Kinryarwanda) and I just stared at her confused. The guys repeated her question for me, in French, then English thinking it was the words I didn’t understand. Eventually I got a clue and asked for akonje quite emphatically then watched as she poured Rich a steaming mug of cow juice, definitely ashyshye.
She poured mine next, an enormous serving of fresh (and I’m pretty certain unpasturized but at least cold) milk. It was thick, creamy and surprisingly delicious.
Quickly on the heels of the milk came a plate of hot chapati. Oh chapati, je t’aime.
I devoured two or three pieces of the thin Indian bread before we continued on to Rusatria. There we interviewed a group of medical students who do family planning education in village health centres, our bellies full of what had certainly been a breakfast of champions.
After the shoot we turned back for home, stopping along the way to buy some of the largest avocados I have ever seen. When I asked how much for one I got laughed at (I’m getting used to it). A basket of about 20 went for 500 francs (1 US dollar). Valentin bought a basket for his family and sent me home with two. One for me, the other for Kristen who I told him liked avocados as well.
On our way back through Nyanza we grabbed a few more brochettes and just when I thought our eating adventure had reached it’s end we did something I’d heard about but had yet to experience...
We stopped for corn! At the roadside, about a half hour from home, we slowed down and a group of young men approached the car pushing fire-cooked corn cobs in through the open windows.
A little like corn-on-the-cob back home but with an almost popcorny flavour it was one of the tastiest parts of the day.
As we tossed out our finished cobs, which I hope made some grazing goats very happy, the guys helped to extend my Kinyarwanda vocabulary with a fitting new phrase: Ndahaze! (I’m full!)
August 4, 2007 — Take two aspirin and call me in the morning...
Here, underneath my mosquito net, in the wee hours of the morning I’ve come to realize something about myself, something I’m not entirely sure I like.
You see it turns out I’m not one those intrepid, independent people who can jet off and leave their life at home behind.
I’ve liked to think I am, but all around me find evidence to the contrary.
Neatly displayed along the floorboard of my bedroom in Kigali you’ll find a line of pictures: me and my friends, my family, my dog.
The time difference means I rarely catch people in the here-and-now but emails from home bring me just as much joy as all the amazing people and places I see in Rwanda everyday.
At first I was disappointed with myself, embarrassed even, as I watched Camille leave on Thursday and felt myself well up with tears. Of course I’ll miss her: my co-producer, my partner in crime, the girl who tells bus drivers who try to overcharge her “do I look rich to you? do I? check my pockets!”
Oh yes, I cried because I knew I’d miss her and that didn’t surprise me. What did was that I envied her too. She was going home.
It’s not that I want to leave yet. If someone tried to put me on an airplane tomorrow they’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. My time in Africa is not over, I haven’t even left Rwanda yet!
But for a day, even an hour, I will admit, I’d like to be back home.
To celebrate Camille’s departure we had drinks, too many of them, at a local watering hole called The Car Wash. The next morning I quickly realized the Ugandan gin had done a serious disservice to my insides. My bragging rights, my never-had-a-hangover claims are dead and gone but what’s weird is that it’s two days later and I’m still not feeling better.
Mary says I should get a blood test for malaria. I will. More than likely it’s still the gin. Which I’ll avoid from now on.
But there’s that part of me, that part I’m not quite sure I like, that can’t shake the feeling that maybe I’m just homesick.
July 31, 2007— These birks are made for walking...
I think you can tell a lot about a person from the shoes they wear.
My rip-off birkenstock sandals are comfortable, loudly-patterned and dirty most of the time.
I like to think they’ve got character and hope they’ll return from Rwanda unscathed. But that’s not to say they haven’t had their share of close calls.
Last Wednesday after the left slipped from my foot on the way off a crowded downtown mini-bus I was pushed and pulled in every direction but back toward it. Luckily, as a stood half-barefoot and rather dejected watching the Toyota chug away, I heard a man call out “Muzungu!” and saw the shoe come hurtling at me through the air.
A couple of weeks back, on a walk through Nyamirambo, the toe-hold of the right broke free of the sole and I walked on without it, my foot immediately covered in red dust from the dirt road. I stopped, shocked for a second at my bad luck and turned to ask for directions to a cobbler.
A young guy who understood French, or whatever it was I was speaking, translated for me, calling out to his friend across the street that I’d broken my sandal. Quite serendipitously not more than twenty yards away a man sat behind a cart piled high with well-worn shoes, working away.
For 100 Rwandan Francs, about 20 cents, the street cobbler sewed right’s toe-hold back in, laughing all the while at my murakoze cyanes (Kinyarwanda for thank you very much).
That was weeks ago and that roadside repair is still holding strong. They don’t look perfect anymore, but they really never did.
Yup, shoes can tell you a lot about a person. Take the guys I work with at Internews:
Jean-Leonard sports these slick, leather ankle boots in a buttery tan. Just like what’s on his feet JL is incredibly hip. Always equipped with the latest technology, a cellphone often to his ear, JL speaks three languages near fluently and is always dressed to the nines. He’s an awesome cameraman, nothing fazes him. Whatever I throw at him he handles with flair and when all is well responds with what I’m pretty sure is his favourite English word, “cool”.
Valentin’s shoes are like him: practical but certainly not lacking in style. With a smile that I sometimes expect to jump right off his face, Van is gracious, helpful and incredibly kind. Matte black, squared toes with neatly tied laces, Van’s shoes don’t draw too much attention and spend a lot of their time kicked off under the desk of his edit suite.
The shoes Sam wears are the big hint, they’re proof that lurking beneath his unassuming, bespectacled appearance is a big goof. Whenever we sit down with an interview subject who pulls nervously on her wrapper or who won’t meet our eyes, Sam speaks to her in a low voice in Kinyarwanda, a lightness in his tone. Moments later without fail the women raise their eyes, and every time, they laugh. Last week as we sat in a conference room full of young filmmakers, Sam addressed the room in rapid French. I missed almost all but the response; the entire room was laughing. Sam’s shoes are silver, patterned in snakeskin. He’s got others, but those are the ones he wears- almost everyday.
July 29, 2007— A Sunday on the bus to Kigali...
We took a beautiful drive from Gisenyi today, all lush and green and death-defying.
The last I add because, despite the incredible beauty of the landscape, the road there was a series of sharp turns on steep cliffs.
The scarcely two-lane road meant the need for warning honks as we met each corner and even still we had a handful of oncoming almosts that left me gripping my armrest and grinding my teeth.
As we set off, I offered my fellow travelers a personal favourite Diana Hart-ism: “if you wonder if it’s been nice knowing you, it has.”
It all seems a tad over-the-top now since this blog stands as proof that I survived, even enjoyed, the journey but I do tend toward the dramatic.
Really though, it was lovely. The terraced farmlands cultivated along the sides of rolling hills looked, from a distance, like giant green and brown quilts covering a sleeping earth.
I quickly realized that “Land of a Thousand Hills” is just a rough estimate, one that sounded better than “Land of a Hell of a Lot of Hills” or “Rwanda: Lots’o Hills, We Got ‘Em.”
A couple members of our crew ended up car sick and for once I was grateful for all the hours I spent in a car as kid, developing an iron-clad stomach and an appreciation for the road. There’s something really comforting to me about the cool rush from an open window, just sitting back and watching the world go by.
My favourite drives until this one have been the curving paths of Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, followed closely by the palm tree-lined streets of Key West. There was a little of both drives in this one. But the beach-bound highway of Rwanda wins out for one reason: the people.
Along the rocky shoulders I watched the locals carry on with their Sunday business: traveling by bicycle, moto and foot to visit friends, attend church and buy and sell the goods carried by basket atop their heads.
This last, which seems to come as second-nature to Rwandans remains a mystical balancing act to me- the princess of uncoordination (I can’t claim to be queen, a title that belongs to my mother, a woman who once attended an aerobics class and was told “maybe you shouldn’t come back”). Despite practice with books and sweaters, mostly for the entertainment of our cook Mary, who cannot believe my ineptness, I can’t seem to master the art of carrying stuff on my head.
Meanwhile, out the bus window today I saw kids as small as four or five balancing water jugs, baskets and bags almost twice their size.
I felt a lot like I do at skating rinks, ski slopes not to mention aerobics classes back home....
July 25, 2007 — Reduce, reuse, recycle…
They drift in the ocean, strangling animals. They lie dormant in landfills, failing to decompose for lack of air and sunlight. And according to the January issue of Bust magazine, in one year 500 billion to 1 trillion are handed out free in consumer venues around the world.
They are plastic bags.
And they’re illegal here in Rwanda.
Along with Sport Utility Vehicles, hairspray, drive-thrus and disposable diapers I’ve long considered plastic bags a scourge on the environment. But until I learned of Rwanda’s hard-line rule against the polyethylene I figured it was just something we ought to suck up and deal with. Scourge or no scourge you can’t go back right?
Wrong. That’s exactly what they did here. In 2005, the government realized that millions of plastic bags were polluting the country so they outlawed them entirely It’s such a great idea I can hardly stand it. So simple yet so incredibly good for the planet.
And you know what? It’s not a big deal. Paper bags still work as well as they used to. Even more efficient are the recyclable cloth and vinyl bags you see for sale all over the place which can actually hold a great deal more without breaking.
And this great idea is catching on quick, as other countries, including many of Rwanda’s neighbors such as Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, follow suit. And if you think only Africans can escape the scourge, think again. They’re working on it in Paris, France, San Francisco, California and a brave little place called Leaf Rapids, Manitoba where they banned petroleum-based plastic bags in 2006.
Well a girl can dream, can’t she?
July 21, 2007 —The potential of little people…
Kids are people too. It sounds silly to remind you but I watch grown-ups forget it all the time. All too often kids get treated like pets, like problems or like projects instead of the very important people they are.
Today however, I met a group of grown-ups who understood very clearly what children are capable of and that all they need to achieve it is a little bit of help (and a lot of encouragement.)
About an hour outside of Kigali lies the village of Rwamagana, home to the Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association. Along with his support staff of social workers and educators Douglas Kakooza runs SACCA helping to rehabilitate kids who’ve been living on the streets.
Some come from troubled homes, others poverty, a number of the older kids were orphaned during the genocide. One way or another all of them ended up on the street, mostly in Kigali, either working in menial jobs or begging for money. A lot of the girls were forced into prostitution and some found themselves pregnant. SACCA has opened its doors to them and to their babies.
The kids get food, which they cook themselves. Just the basics: beans, rice, potatoes. These are not luxury accommodations by any stretch. Some will admit they consider returning to their work in the city. After all, there were days when the money was good, and they ate a lot better than they do here. There are no French fries at SACCA.
But there is shelter (although some of the rooms are shared by as many as 6 or 8 children) and here unlike out on the streets it’s a chance to go to school, a chance to be safe and a chance to have a home.
Returning to the life of an average kid isn’t always easy. These just aren’t your average kids. They’re used to working, not playing and rather than expecting them to change their ways SACCA has created some amazing programming that harnesses the power of these entrepreneurs.
The girls use old magazines to make beaded necklaces along with banana leaf greeting cards and traditional Rwandese artwork. The boys take custom orders for T-shirts that they design and print themselves. The staff help them find markets to sell their merchandise and after turning a profit they’re required to pay back a portion of the cost of supplies. With the rest they learn to set up savings, the older kids preparing to pay rent once they leave SACCA.
Camille and I were shown all four of the facilities, amazed by the stuff the kids had created and the programs in place here to help them succeed. But when we arrived at the last stop most of the hallways were empty, a few boys washed their clothes in the yard and a small gaggle followed us from room to room on our tour. I’d heard this was home to 40 plus kids but didn’t see the numbers to substantiate it.
When we asked, we were piled into Douglas’ beat up pickup truck, the back of which quickly filled up with all the boys we’d met on the tour. After a bumpy 10 or so minute drive we came upon the neighborhood football (we Canadians call it soccer) field where a big game was set to commence.
There were enough boys there from SACCA to make up 2, maybe even 3, football teams.
In front of me were kids who had been abused, impoverished, mistreated and until they came to SACCA totally written off. But, and I can’t stress this enough, these are not the kids you see on World Vision commercials. They don’t feel sorry for themselves and you shouldn’t feel sorry for them either. These are amazing little people with beaming smiles and impeccable manners. Even the shyest of the bunch offered me his right hand in greeting, the left one clasping his elbow— a Rwandese way of showing respect for your elders.
I shook a ton of hands and took a bunch of pictures, but was soon ushered politely but urgently off the field.
On other days there’s school to attend, T-shirts to paint, dishes to wash.
But today is Saturday.
And for these kids, these very important people, Saturday is for soccer.
If you’re interested in learning more about SACCA. Contact them at:
Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association
Oh, and in case like us you’re wondering, Camille asked Douglas what it costs him per month, per child. Food, shelter, primary school fees all add up to around 7000 Rwandan Francs, about 14 dollars US.
July 14, 2007 — 'I want to hold your hand'…
Rwandans have something down that we avoid in North America: the public display of affection.
When you shake someone’s hand they don’t let go right away. Oftentimes you’ll find an entire conversation has passed between you and a new acquaintance with your fingers still linked.
Touch is important here; it connects people. When two women pass in the street, even if one’s hands are quite full of shopping or errands or kids, her friend reaches out to greet her by resting a hand on her wrist.
The day I arrived in our house in Kigali, our fabulous cook, Mary was out washing dishes. Her hand was wet but she offered it anyway, I thought that a little odd but still shook it, not wanting to be rude. A laughing Mary taught me the wrist hold and we’ve managed it successfully ever since.
You can also expect lots of kissing. It’s more of a press on the cheek than an out and out smooch, three in a row- always. We went to see a musical act last week who we’d met on a radio station tour. He reached over to give me the distinctive three kiss treatment and when I managed it without making too big a fool of myself assured me, “You’re African now!” Not quite, but I appreciated the sentiment.
But what I most appreciate is the men. And no, I don’t mean that the way it sounds.
Men here embrace, they touch foreheads gently when they greet each other after a time apart and most notably they hold hands!
It’s not uncommon to see two men strolling hand in hand, or with their arms wrapped around each others shoulders. It shows a warmth of friendship that I’d be refreshed to see more of back home.
So I suggest we all take a cue from the Rwandans. Come on! You know you want to, just reach out…and touch someone.
July 9, 2007 — Where there’s a will...
Rereading my last entry makes me feel uneasy.
I thought about changing it but won’t; it represents the way I felt at the time. I left the memorial site feeling immense sorrow but great surprise. The latter for the triumph of the Rwandese over what most of us would consider insurmountable adversity.
But, and isn’t there always a but, today I can’t help but feeling that I’ve let you all off the hook too easily.
Yes, YOU, dear readers (whoever you may be). Wouldn’t it be nice of me to come here, be your cheerful eyes and hopeful ears, reporting back just to tell you that everything is all right?
It would be nice, but things aren’t all right; the painful repercussions of the genocide will be felt here for generations. And it would fail to remind you of something— we abandoned the people of Rwanda, and when they needed us the most.
I was 10. So I’m not shouldering all the blame here, I mean the greater we, the we that means everyone else in the world beyond the borders of a land that was so embroiled in chaos and hate that it couldn’t see straight. But we saw. We knew what was happening in Rwanda and we did little, almost nothing really, to help.
Now, we’re doing it again, only this time in Darfur.
Try and take a moment to think about that fax Dallaire sent to headquarters at the UN: “Give me the means, I can do more.”
I think you can. That’s why I asked Yoni Levitan of STAND (Students Take Action Now Darfur) for some of the ways you can help the situation in Darfur. Here are his suggestions:
1. Write to your MP, the PM, and the MFO, and tell them you care about Darfur, and are angered by the government's lack of focus on the issue.
You can ask that they appoint a special envoy, and should continue to vigorously support the contact group, and it's peace-making efforts. There is little coverage in the media that Canada is a part of the expanded group - this is because the PM and MFO almost never talk about Darfur publicly.
2. Go to http://sudandivestment.org/home.asp and use their mutual fund screener to see if you own any mutual funds that invest in "worst offenders". These are companies that provide a significant revenue stream to the GoS (government of Sudan) while imparting minimal benefit to the average Sudanese citizen, ex. PetroChina (sinopec).
If you are very interested in the issue of targeted (Yoni stresses the targeted) you can start a targeted divestment campaign at your high school or university (STAND is currently building it's capacity to support wider scale targeted divestment). You can go a step further by starting a full chapter of STAND at your school - go to http://www.standcanada.org/index.php/stand_on_my_campus
3. Learn more! Go to websites like standcanada.org or icg.org (International Crisis Group) to increase your understanding of this complex crisis. Once you have educated yourself, go engage five different people in discussion on Darfur over the course of a few days.
4. Donate to a humanitarian group working in Darfur and Chad: Trustworthy organizations like MSF (Doctors Without Borders) http://www.msf.ca/en/donate/waystogive/waystogive.html Oxfam http://www.oxfam.ca/what-you-can-do, and CARE http://care.ca/don/don_e.shtm are sure ways to make sure your money will be well spent, and directly benefit those on the ground.
If, like me, you're not rolling in dough why not organize a fundraising event? Some popular MSF fundraising events include: read-a-thons, bake sales, barbeques, car washes, dinner dances, food fairs, garage sales, runs (5K, 10K), and tournaments (golf, basketball, soccer).
5. And the last suggestion is my own. The conflict in Darfur has forced many to flee their homes becoming IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and refugees, many in neighboring Chad. Women and girls have to leave these camps to gather firewood for cooking and often have to venture a great distance putting them at risk of rape by militiamen. With a donation of $30 Jewish World Watch will provide a solar cooker to a refugee family helping to protect women from being raped and even killed. http://www.jewishworldwatch.org/donate/solarcookerproject.html
We have the means. We can do more.
We have to stop saying never again.
We have to start meaning it.
July 8, 2007 — Never again…
Today we toured the Gisozi Genocide Memorial and Education Centre, now the burial site of over 250 000 people killed in 1994.
It’s a story I’ve heard before, a history I know well and for those reasons it was something I didn’t expect would hurt me to hear again as much as it did.
The devil really is in the details; they were what got me.
Watching a video that looped of a young guy recounting his mother’s murder, frankly and with the kind of detachment that revealed how terrifyingly common his story is here.
Reading one small display panel explaining how HIV+ men used rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing. Yes, sometimes, instead of killing women outright, they would leave them to die slowly and painfully of AIDS.
Discovering the exact words of Dallaire’s fax: “Give me the means and I can do more,” and believing that he could have if someone had given him a chance, in what was quite literally hell.
And the worst of all, seeing recognition on an older couple’s face as they looked at a display of victim’s photographs and found someone, or someones, they knew. She cried quietly, he looked like he’d seen a ghost. And in the dark antechambers of the memorial centre, next to the resting place of thousands, he may have. At times I felt like I had.
Outside, as I wandered though the beautiful gardens that surround the mass graves, I’ll admit I got distracted. I began to watch a group of people outside the gated memorial grounds, all carrying yellow, plastic containers downhill to a water source, filling their jugs and making the long climb back up toward their homes.
I watched them a long time. So long that one young woman noticed my stares. She was probably just a little older than me with a baby tied to her back, his little feet all of him that was visible as she climbed toward me, a newly filled jug of water on her head.
Our eyes met and slowly she raised her hand, not in a wave exactly but as if to say, yes, here I am. For what may have been the tenth time in half an hour, I cried.
The evil of the genocide’s perpetrators is beyond me, so too is the fear of the victims. A million walks in a rose garden will never help me even begin to comprehend what really happened here.
But now, 13 years later I see something that I have just as hard a time understanding. It’s a level of tenacity I wouldn’t expect existed if I didn’t walk these streets each day and see it with my own eyes.
Everywhere, even here where once it might have seemed impossible, life goes on.
July 7, 2007 — A little goes a long way…
It’s not the reception I had hoped for. The Africa of my dreams; the one that beckoned me with warm black arms and happy smiles, pulling me close and welcoming me to this incredible land.
Here people shake my hand cooly, offering me the obligatory “you are welcome” when we first meet, or stare at my white skin as we pass on the street. Except for the staring it’s exactly how we treat strangers back home really, and it was naïve of me to expect things here to be any different.
Without my usual arsenal of bad jokes and silly stories I’m at a loss when meeting new people here in Rwanda. All the smiling in the world doesn’t explain who I am and what I’m doing here.
It’s true that a great many people speak French, others English, but in their homes, before going to school, almost all speak Kinyarwandan. Back home there were neither classes in it offered, nor dictionaries to buy so I arrived here tongue-tied, unable to communicate with a majority of the very people I had come to meet. Quickly I set to the work of learning.
Good Canadian that I am the first word I grasped was the one used to say both “excuse me” and “ I’m sorry.” Next, came “thank you” followed by “hello” “how are you?” “I’m fine” and “And you?”
I’ll admit that’s all I’ve got so far. But it has pleasantly surprised me how much that small effort has turned this intimidating place into a far friendlier one.
When I see those curious stares on the street I can call out “hello!” and am greeted with the same, followed always by laughter for both my efforts and no doubt my accent. When little children rush up to me to touch my skin and ask how I am, I too can say “how are you?” and listen to their giggling response. Getting off buses I can pay the young collector and say thank you, bumping into people in the crowded streets I can pardon myself for my missteps.
It occurs to me that there’s another important phrase I ought to learn in Kinyanrwandan, though the impression I get from the laughter and smiles that always follow my “thank yous” and “how are yous” is that, to the people here, it’s understood. They know that what I also mean to say is: “I’m trying.”