In my last post I talked about the smell of Africa. This time, the sounds: I wake up in the morning to the sound of dozens of different types of birds, children laughing and yelling, the sound of cooking, water being poured, the washing of clothes, and the universal sound of a mother trying to herd her many children to do this or that. Throughout the day and into the evening, there is the absolutely glorious call to prayer that a Muslim man down the streets sings out over the neighborhood. During the day I can hear singing from the Friends Church down the hill, and from all the schools—singing everywhere, all the time. On days like today, when there is a big soccer match to listen to on the radio, there is general uproar and hollering from all corners of the district. In the evening, the crickets and other loud bugs come out, and join all the other sounds of the day. The only truly silent time is between 3 and 4am (I know this from that first night of jetlag and sleeplessness), before people start getting up to do the morning chores and when the crickets are finally quiet.
Kinyarwanda progress update of the day: gakire (after someone sneezes), birababaje (I’m sorry for things that are sad), mwihangane (take care/take courage), mbabarira (I’m sorry for running into you), nibyiza (it’s beautiful/it’s good).
Francine has an English exam in five days, and so we’ve been spending our nights in amusing circular lessons alternating between Kinyarwanda, English and French. Many people here in Rwanda do not differentiate between the letters L and R in any given word—regardless of language. I’ve been quite appreciative of the fact that French is everyone’s second language here (or even third)…thus making my rusty and stumbling French much less obvious or irritating to Rwandans. Because many Rwandans grew up outside of Rwanda in English-speaking countries like Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda, there are a fair number of Rwandans who do not speak French at all. In the past week, I have had many conversations that alternate within sentences between English, French and Kinyarwanda.
In other news, there is now a second lizard in our house, and the bigger one is chasing it around the house trying to eat it—this unfortunately neglects the mosquito issue, but does provide excellent entertainment for us.
Thursday I went to the second IDP camp, Ndego, which is up in the northeast corner of Rwanda. In the late 1990s the government reserved a section of land in the northern part of Akagera National Park, right on the border of Tanzania, for returning refugees. The people living in Ndego had a story much like that of the people in Nemba. Many of them were born in Tanzania and were chased from their homes in 2006. The government moved them to Ndego, helped them get established by moving in groups of Rwandese who had never left Rwanda, and then left the diverse mix of people to figure out how to live together.
It takes four hours to drive there from Kigali, but mainly because of the horrendous condition of the roads once you leave Kayonza, the last big town to the east. We have a driver, Leopold, who does not speak English or French, does not understand manual transmission, and prefers to drive at or above 80km/h. I spent the entirety of those four hours praying for our lives, the lives of those innocent people on the side of the road, and the life of our tiny beat up car that was not made for such a journey.
The roads have potholes and cracks that are of almost post-earthquake caliber. Worse than the bumps and holes, however, are the stretches of road that are covered in rocks ground into nice razor-sharp points just waiting to burst all of your tires. The knowledge that we were beyond help’s range if we broke down kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of the ride.
When we did arrive at Ndego, it was an amazingly different climate and geography than the rest of Rwanda. Akagera is also a game reserve, and the land looks safari-friendly—with the tall yellow grass, acacia trees, rocks, sun, dust and low vegetation—whereas the rest of Rwanda is more lush and tropical with the banana trees, and mountainous stretches of green farmland.
As I began the interviews, under a nice tent out of the scorching sun, it became clear that while AVP may be helpful, there are certain problems that even conflict resolution training can’t help. As a result of drought, unrelenting sun with little shade, and game animals who come and eat their crops, the people in Ndego are starving. Every single person I interviewed said the same thing: “AVP changed my life, but if I can’t feed my children, I cannot feel peace in my heart.” Another woman said, “Rwanda is good, it is our homeland, but you cannot stay someplace where you cannot eat.” There is no denying the truth in what she says.
The people of Ndego that I spoke with had the impression that AVP was an organization that could supply them with food, or better, convince the government to move the camp. I didn’t have the heart to say that all AVP could do was bring more workshops—a pitiful gift in the face of such hardship. So I wrote down all their requests, and ensured that I would pass along their words to people who could work to change their situation. It was painful to get back in the car after a few hours of interviews and know that at my feet I had a bag with some bananas and bread for Emmanuel, Leopold and myself. Kids with swollen bellies watched us leave…and it was hard to not feel that all their hopes for a better future drove off with us.
I knew writing the report would be hard because I would hear testimonies of traumatic experiences. I didn’t really think about how people praying for something better would now attach my face to their prayers. There is a heavy sense of obligation and helplessness that comes with that expectation. We may all feel some sense of responsibility as privileged, educated Americans. But in the same way that they now attach my face to the hope that AVP will change things for the better, I now have their faces etched in my mind of what that responsibility really means.
We survived the return death-journey, but I’m supposed to do almost the same trip again on Monday to go to Kageyo (where unless something happens, I won’t have to stay overnight). It turns out that I don’t have to go Nasho, as all the AVP participants who lived there have left the camp for one reason or another. I have absolutely no faith that the car can make the trip on Monday…but I have no idea what else to do.
I spent some time in downtown Kigali yesterday—which is often referred to as centre ville and pronounced as “centRAY villAY”, all L’s included. (For those of you who speak have heard the French speak French, the accent here is fascinating and a little difficult to get used to. Deux is pronounced “dee” and matin is “meh”). As I’ve spent more time in very rural Rwanda, Kigali seems increasingly like the bustling city that people talk about. Whereas when I first arrived, I had a hard time connecting my understanding of a city with what was here.
Okay, that’s all for now. If you’re a Quaker or Quaker-familiar, please hold my Monday voyage in the Light. Otherwise, think good thoughts about strong tires and nice flat roads!