>> Monday, June 21, 2010

The week of the Rwandan

Partly because I have a guilt-sensitive gag reflex, and partly because my priorities lie more in research than personal satiation, this past week has been the culmination of many moments of culturally-induced understandings and curiosities; of needs and wants merging to one, and, of my limited tolerance for detachment from my community.

Thus began my week as a Rwandan.

Peace Corps preaches that we live at the level of the local community, and on some points, we really do. But even by the minimal living allowance PC gives us monthly, it’s still a far cry from what the typical Rwandan lives off. [probably because they’re accounting also for our letters home, phone credit, toilet paper and the occasional relapse into western life by splurging on an egg sandwich and coffee at a cafĂ© once a month. Mmmm...]

But my neighbors don’t have such luxury, and the girls in my village don’t take the bus, go to town, or contemplate buying tree tomatoes even though they’re out of season. Every day I walk the 4 miles to town out of the mountain with my neighbors. They’re mostly heading to the markets, but doing so with baskets of maize balanced on their heads.

This means of carrying things had lost its shock value until I saw a woman walking down our mountain carrying a full-sized school bench, a chair, a market bag, and a basket of produce, all balanced on the bench on her head. There was also a baby on her back. She also had the fore thought to cover the baby with a shawl to protect him from the sun. And it’s not a small decline by any means. I still feel like I’m in Bridget’s boot camp every time I go up it. And I almost fall once a day going down. These women are malnourished, usually pregnant, usually with a baby already strapped to them, and they move jugs of water, vegetables, or benches, apparently, up and down the mountains like mules. No complaints, no hesitance.

And I walk with their kids, and they’re excited, to play with their friends at the water pump in the valley; to kick a football made out of banana leaves wound-together like the cultural extension of a rubber band ball; to tell the muzungu they’re going to look for food. And I feel guilt at the empty water bottle in my bag, at the prospect of bread, eggs, maybe even juice and other luxuries of having more than 500rwf a week to spend.
And small children chew on sugar cane or unripe tree fruits, and stumble their chubby legs over to me, arms stretched out for minutes waiting to get close enough to touch the mysteriously white-skinned, fine-haired girl who lives god-knows-why in their village.

Being confronted by these images moment by moment, acknowledging the women who carry one jerican strapped to their head, the other to their waist, and I wonder how they aren’t still scoffing at me. They definitely think I can’t do anything. One woman tried to carry my hoe for me, amongst all the other crap she had on her. I told her I had strength and could carry it, and she laughed. The children gossip about me. A little girl I walk down the mountain with sometimes told me how other children tell her rumors about me, and she refutes or confirms them [since she has ACTUAL CONTACT with the muzungu]. And this one girl, she said that you never take lifts from passing cars, and you always walk, always! Even though you could have a ride [true. My rigorous walking dedication is paying off because people notice, thank goodness. Plus my legs look awesome] and the other kids, they tell me that you have a fiancĂ©! And that you won’t take a Rwandan husband! [also true. I don’t think that requires an explanation]...

We are both quite the paradox, I think. I look absurd to them and they boggle my mind on a regular basis. Movements, facial expressions, emotional expressions, dress, work, contemplation, everything. We blink at each other and sometimes I’m not sure who the zoo exhibit is. Ok that’s not true. I know it’s me. I actively try not to stare while they actively embrace the impulse.

But they’ve started to accept me. They’ve let me in to their lives for, I don’t know what reason.
We pulled out in 1994. Not only did we pull out but we pulled every other white person out, too. We left them to burn themselves out, to smolder until all the flames were out and a million people had died. And now they welcome me into their village? I walk home with friends, neighbors, marveling that everyone knows my name, that the mothers bid me hello, that the older boys and girls cast casual remarks as I pass, and the children ambush me with hugs as we approach my house. Even the girl whose presence I dread like the town drunk was waiting at my gate, just to say, bites? [semblance to, what’s up?] and no longer mocked me with incessant muzungu chanting. I’m feeling a little like a rockstar; exhausted, but riding a high on the cycle of adjustment; I've just hit the gold star or bullet on rainbow road and can now just sit back and enjoy the ride. I don’t feel like I deserve this. But I’m grateful. So grateful.

So I spent a week like a Rwandan. I’ve had one meal a day; beans, rice, cooked bananas, so on and as much water as I can afford to boil and carry with me during the day. The beans I cooked came from my own garden, and the 2000 rwf I budgeted for the week was spent only in the markets on produce from the people I call my neighbors.

It’s just an experiment, really. To get in touch with them, to understand their mannerisms and motions and dialect. To quiet my curiosity at things I see but don’t have an explanation for [which is everything]. They’ll still think I’m a muzungu, that I’m hiding my baby-pool of money and riches in the closed door of my bedroom. But at least I’ll understand more. Maybe I’ll have the answers to the millions of unfamiliar moments I experience each day. Or just one. Just one answer would be enough for now.

It took until day 5 of this lifestyle for me to have a delusional urge for bagels, day 7 to dream about pizza, but only day 3 or 4 to start to feel the effects on my body. My lips shriveled and my skin broke out in a still unfamiliar dryness. My motions were slow, deliberate, which I only realized while I tried to swish my head around in a bucket to wash my hair and became instantly disoriented and nauseated. I also realized that a mannerism I’d noted, particularly in the men, of walking [moseying, almost] slowly, with the arms lingering out to touch things, meandering side to side, in what had appeared to be a very random and erratically slow movement, had an underlining malnutrition to it. I found myself reaching my arms out unintentionally to touch passing objects, and then realized it’s because I was so dehydrated, I couldn’t be sure where my feet would be landing. I had reached my fingertips out to graze the surface of an electrical pole, a plant, anything, because it gave me a sense of depth, grounding me to my current location and giving an awareness to my surroundings that maybe I wasn’t able to comprehend anymore on my own. It’s so interesting.

Anyhow, I made it to day 6 before I bought eggs and some bread to make an obscene amount of French toast [a compromise with myself, for not going looking irrationally for expensive Kigali-city bagels for no good reason other than delirium]. I feel like Hermann Hesse while researching Siddhartha but with much less clarity. That also might just be the hunger talking.
How do you even begin to even the score? Not only are they hungry, but they’ve accepted it as a standard of living. Not only are they orphaned, but still living in the house their parents were killed in. Not only is it difficult, but it’s a matter of fact. It’s life. End of story.


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