Sunday, July 29, 2007

Life in Kibungo

Life in Kibungo seems worlds away from Kigali's sprawling suburbia. The drive itself is a transformation as you depart downtown Kigali with its massive American-embassy-in-progress that looks like it intends to cast a shadow over the surrounding hills and wind through the countryside. The bbrrrr of motorcycles gradually fades into the clickity-clank of bicycles, and the concrete fences topped with broken shards of Fanta bottles give way to enclosures made from tall reeds bound tightly together called imiyenzi. The roadsides are full of pedestrians. There are mothers in kitenge with babies bound tightly to their backs with colorful cloths-umbrellas raised at high noon to shade the tiny bobbing heads. Woman march to the market with their wares balanced expertly on their heads in great plastic tubs or cloth sacks. Boys labor on bicycles so over-loaded with bananas and pineapples that their bodies are obscured and it appears that the fruit is peddling on its own. Men sit on grassy embankments chewing stalks of sugar cane and eyeing passing cars like invading armies. And the sight that continues to disturb me-tiny children no older than three or four, wandering the roadside barefoot and alone. Houses here are gray concrete or mud and stick-almost all without electricity and water. People collect and pay for water at communal pumps in giant yellow jerricans and truck them home on their heads or on bicycles. The water isn't potable, but I can't imagine boiling such large quantities of water every day by fire.

I love the remoteness and the closeness to nature. I've often heard my grandfather, an organic farmer, speak of the Slow Food Movement, but it always seemed obscure to me. Slow Food is an ideology that celebrates the full life-cycle of crops. A carrot isn't simply an orange vegetable you buy pre-sliced and bagged at the supermarket. It's a tiny seed-planted, nurtured, weeded, and harvested by hand and then washed, peeled, and sliced before being savored by humble and appreciative taste buds. There's nothing but slow food here in Kibungo. Meals taste wonderful-not because the food is different (although eggs and fresh fruit taste worlds better)-but because we labor to make it. Milk is delivered straight from the cow every morning. We boil it to kill the bacteria, siphon off the thick cream, and drink it with breakfast-thick, filling, and 100 percent more flavorful than the watery excuse I force myself to drink at school. Bread isn't pulled from the freezer here, it's mixed, kneaded, left to rise, and baked fresh. Fruits and vegetables are either grown in our garden or negotiated for at the village market. I haven't had the heart to ask for meat, however, because I've been warned that the live chicken or goat will be brought home and butchered at our doorstep.

Mzee tends the garden and does some of the cleaning around the compound. He appears to be in his fifties and is so thin (I marvel that I can't see a trace of his legs beneath his cotton pants) that I wonder where all his strength comes from. He doesn't speak a word of English and has a sort of self-constructed version of French, so after we greet each other each morning in Kinyarwanda, its all smiles and gestures for the rest of the day. Last week, he taught me how to make bread-sweeping his hands around in great cloudy arks to signal me to pour more flour. I love to observe his resourcefulness. While gardening, if he needs another terrace for the cabbage patch, he hacks down a sapling with his machete, strips the tree, and drags it over to the garden. Mzee keeps three hand-made beehives up in the trees behind our house. He makes them out of hollowed out logs that he hangs from the upper branches. Once a month after sunset, he climbs the tree-feet and hands clamping the trunk like an inch worm, and smokes out the bees to get honey. We sat outside and watched one night. He carried a bucket, a long length of rope, a torch, and a machete up into the tree. It was too dark to see, but after the sudden humming of a thousand displaced bees, a shower of sparks, and the lowering of the bucket, Mzee climbed down and showed us the empty honeycomb he had sliced out. He explained that he had waited too long and the bees had already feasted on all the honey. Maria asked if he'd been stung and he grinned and nodded, turning his forearms over to show us the marks.

I've had a diverse array of bathing experiences while in Africa. On Kilimanjaro, I didn't wash at all. At the guest houses of Arusha and Kigali, I was pampered with hot showers or baths. But here in Kibungo, the bathing experience is my favorite. Every morning, I stand in a basin and pour cupfuls of water on my head. The air is warm, the water is warm, and it feels blissfully natural to be bathing this way. This is how humans have washed themselves for thousands of years and here I am at 21 trying it for the first time. I press my hand to my forehead like the brim of a hat to keep the soap from stinging my eyes-like I did so many times for Stella when she was a baby. When I'm all scrubbed and clean, I've only used a tenth of the water I might otherwise have in a high-powered shower back home.

Waste disposal is a problem in a country the size of Maryland with a surging population. President Kagame has even outlawed plastic bags-a move that is pure genius but would be viewed as a huge breach of the Bill of Rights back at home. We compost everything edible, and I'm speaking truthfully when I say that as a household, we produce only a half a bag of trash a week. It makes sense when you consider that there is no packaged food or supplies. We save and reuse everything from the milk jug to the yellow plastic phone cards we turn into flash cards for the class. I've been told it takes 28 days to build a habit. I'm curious to see whether any of these newly acquired and environmentally conscious behaviors will stick when I return to the states.

Another difference between the city and the countryside is the complete absence of muzungos. Beside Mama Jean, Robin, and myself, I'm aware of only one other white person living in the area. She's a British headmaster training Rwandan school administrators in the area. I've glimpsed her twice, met her once, and though she was perfectly nice, our conversation confirmed my suspicion that most muzungos are territorial of remote African villages in which they are the sole pale novelty.

Because of the color of my skin, I've grown accustomed to the stares, laughs, and shouts when I walk or drive by. I have to figure that most of the young children in the remotest of villages have only seen whites several times in their lives, because what else can justify the shrieks of "MUZUNGO!"? That's like screaming "ALBINO!" every time you see a person with that skin affliction. It's shocking, hilarious, and a little disconcerting to be on the receiving end of such targeted racial commentary (the word muzungo isn't a racial slur, but it certainly isn't polite either.) Never in my life have I experienced so completely what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, being a minority with celebrity status is an entirely different thing, but there are times I wish I could just blend in.

Maria and I have started jogging several nights a week. At first, we ran on the main road, but the reactions of the people were so alarming that we decided to pick another route. Pedestrians would literally stop in their tracks and stare and shopkeepers would come out of their shops and stand in the doorways. I felt like a zoo animal on display. So we started jogging on a dirt road near the LWF compound. The reaction of the people was no different, but there were more children than adults there and I enjoyed observing the homes and life-styles of the families as we passed by. Often the kids would come out of their compounds to watch us, and one day they began running after us. If you've ever been chased by a large pack of children, it's a truly frightening experience. I caught a surge of adrenaline and was ready to sprint away, but Maria was visibly winded so we kept our pace. To my surprise, the children caught up with us and slowed down, silently running along side while looking up at me with wide eyes. Maria giggled and I looked down to see a tiny boy who had managed to squeeze himself in the small space between us. His arms were pressed flat to his sides and he shrunk up his shoulders to fit in the gap-running like a tiny little pole. It was too funny. We continued like that for about a half mile before the children dropped out one by one, as silently as they'd come.

It's the dry season in Rwanda, which means we haven't seen a drop of rain in the five weeks I've been here. As Maria and I jog, we kick up orange clouds of dusty dirt-coloring our skin and our clothes an earthy tone. My sinuses suffer, and even letting down my dust-coated hair at night prompts a sneezing fit. Post exercise, I wash-rivets of orange streaming down my legs into the murky water I stand in. Afterward, dinner preparations-washing, pealing, slicing, boiling, steaming, serving, eating.washing, drying, stacking. sighing, sitting, chatting, reading, sleeping. There are no shortcuts to life in Kibungo. We're beyond lucky to have running water, electricity (at times), and a stove and refrigerator-not to mention shelves of books on faith, war, genocide, peace, poverty, fantasy, and fiction.

A few hundred yards away, a dim candle lights a mud room, and a woman tends a low-burning fire-feeding sliced matoke, garlic, and beans into the boiling water as her children play quietly around her. It's only 6:30, but the sunlight has fled, and along with it, the useable hours of the day. It's early to bed, early to rise in this household. No books, no lights, no laptop computers, just family, friends, a few goats and chickens, a cherished plot of land, hard work, and dreams.

Rwanda for me is a brief cultural emersion-like playing house or a family vacation to an isolated log cabin. It's fun, but it's finite, and perhaps that's the reason I can enjoy it. It's no passing experience for the students I teach and the people that gawk as I jog by. That's a truth that is hard to fully appreciate. Maybe an opportunity for a better life won't come for these people. Maybe the closest thing is a free English lesson three times a week with some crazy muzungos that smile so much their mouth is likely to get stuck like that-acting like the world doesn't have problems.


Butamire said...


Very interesting! What seems to me so ordinay and matter-of-fact, you make it sound so outlandish and excitingly exotic!!

As for problems, act as if there aren't any, because there aren't! You and and I and those giggling kids jogging with you have all the solutions needed.

And that shout of "UMUZUNGU" is their way of welcoming you: an innocent expression of welcome unincumbered by racial feelings, welcoming a complementary difference.

Healed from poverty, this life that you are experiencing now will be cherished by us all 'locals'.


egide said...

Hi Logan!

I open and read your blog every morning to make sure that things are running smoothly for you. Keep us posted regularly as most of us won't be able to survive any interruption!

While reading your following statement ''Never in my life have I experienced so completely what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, being a minority with celebrity status is an entirely different thing, but there are times I wish I could just blend in''

I remembered my two stays in China where some folks used to run out of my way in public places while some others would stop and ask for a picture with me. In your case, as in mine, there is no racially motivated hostility, but only curiosity. My Chinese hosts were there to discover a black male above six feet in height and women would bring their babies for a hug. No need to tell you that I used to hug both babies and their moms! In the beginning I found it a superstitious behavior but I realized later on that 99% of Chinese have never seen a black person.. forget touching him.

Stereotypes stemming from height and colour in my case would add some unanticipated reactions. For my Chinese hosts, I was not a true Canadian Ph.D student, but an African American playing for the NBA. During the first Gulf War, I was in Bahrain and people used to invite me for a drink. They thought I was a US marine. Kuwait had just been liberated and everybody wanted to welcome me for a drink! Things have changed since then.

One of the ways I used in China in order to live this positevely is to talk to as many people as you can outside your house, especially in public places. That will put an end to your uniqueness, social isolationism and subsquent public curiosity. Whenever you feel stereotypes are about to play a bad role, kindly refuse them. In Rwanda, Americans are so welcome that I don't anticipate any wrong attitude.

This being said, please remember I was born in Kibungo! Say hi to folks who still remember my name over there..Luc, Butera, Caritas, to name a few of them. When we were kids, we also used to run after a muzungu whenever we had a chance to see one in the area:) But that was a very long time ago. Habits have apparently resisted the passage of time and so many bazungu coming in and out haven't changed anything about it.

Enjoy your stay and keep us posted.

Logan G said...

Thank you both for such clarifying and enriching commentary. Your insights help me to understand the few cultural differences I'm experiencing as well as give me the confidence to be myself. Egide, I haven't yet contacted your Kibungo mates, but I promise to tomorrow. Thank you for sharing your friends and family with me--it's been a treat!

Anonymous said...

Logan, with both your parents working in a journalism field, you may be tempted to take your ability to post these blogs for granted. Don't. Your observations are keen and personal, reflective and funny, all at once. Not everyone can capture both the visual details of an experience and offer insight into the more abstract concepts of such experiences. You may well find that your words can ultimately become a more important gift than any number of laptops and library books. As much as I am going to be thrilled to see you again later this month, I am going to miss being able to sign in for a new chapter in "Adventure in 1000 Hills."