The American Embassy here in Kigali had a 4th of July celebration on Friday, which nicely coincided with the Rwandan Day of Liberation holiday as well (viewed by some as a day solely for RPF propaganda) —a truly festive day. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the embassy event, but it ended up being extraordinarily wonderful.
I’d estimate that I understand at most a quarter of what goes on around me here—when you take language, culture and field experience into account. The four hours I spent at the embassy party was the first time since arriving that I effortlessly understood 100% of my surroundings. It was wonderful to be relieved of the weight of cultural adaptation for a few hours, and I left feeling positive about being here in Rwanda (you could see how easy it’d be to leave feeling homesick). I most loved the way everyone was 1) so eager for easy social interaction without the language and cultural barriers that we absolutely pounced on anyone that directed so much as a smile our way; and 2) so curious about everyone else—anything that brings someone half way around the world must be fascinating, so the pouncing mentioned above necessarily involved sharing what you’re doing here in Rwanda. It was absolutely incredible to listen to strangers’ stories, I felt almost hungry for others’ experiences. It made me feel much less isolated knowing that there are people making the same mistakes as I am, missing the same jokes, and also not being able to figure out the correct way to hug.
There were a range of folks, some short-term volunteers like myself, and some big guys around town like the director of the main hospital here in Kigali, or the head of USAID for Rwanda. There was music (the play-list requirement for the afternoon clearly having been “popular and appropriate music that makes people go ‘oh! I love this song’ each time”), there was volleyball and tug-of-war, there was face painting, free COLD beverages, and the most spectacular American buffet you can imagine if you’re eating far too many plantains and peas. There seemed to be this wonderful phenomenon where everyone is craving the same foods, so the absurd excess of brownies and cookies seemed less like “this is the easy thing to make,” and more like “everyone misses dessert and most of all chocolate, so let’s O.D. on it for the day.”
I met a ton of interesting people, and have never had such an easy time making new friends (except maybe that desperate first day of college….). The rather awkward singing of the Star Spangled Banner made me feel like a good American, and when I climbed back into a matatu mini-bus to make my way home to Kicukiro, I felt full and warm and completely happy with an afternoon spent so patriotically.
Yesterday I went with Francine to visit her family in Gikondo (she passed her English exam with flying colors by the way), and fell in love with them a little bit. Her nuclear family lives out in the east, so while she’s studying at the University here and not staying overnight in the guesthouse with me, she has been living with her uncle and aunt and their children in Gikondo. It took me awhile to figure this out because she doesn’t distinguish between familial terms the way we do in the States. Her ‘older brother’ may actually be a cousin, her ‘older sister’ may actually be her aunt’s sister, her ‘younger brother’ may have no relation whatsoever but live in the house, and her ‘younger sister’ is, in fact, her niece. I like this lack of distinction, however, because it amplifies everyone’s importance and seems much more accurate in some ways. She’s told me before about how her uncle and aunt treat her like their own child, and I even felt like they took me in as one of their own today. It was great to visit them again, as the first time I visited was my very first day in Rwanda, and needless to say, I was reeling a bit and didn’t really take in my surroundings very well…
It also POURED all day yesterday and today, which is a completely unexpected event when it is the big dry season here (they have a big dry season, a little dry season, a big rainy season and a little rainy season). It was pouring the last time I went to Gikondo, so now Francine’s family believes I bring the rain.
Today is also an important day because I finally graduated from being a visitor at the Friends Church here. Being a visitor involves standing up in front of the congregation with a microphone and introducing oneself. Though it was a boost to my linguistic ego to introduce myself entirely in Kinyarwanda for a few weeks, I can only imagine how awful my accent must be. I must admit I’m utterly relieved to not do it anymore! I guess that’s the reward for passing the one month milestone.
An addition to my last post on Gisenyi: I’ve since learned from a doctor who used to work in that part of the country that the most common cause of injury he encountered was people literally falling out of their gardens. With fields precariously planted on the sides of mountains, someone would be hoeing a row for carrots, misstep, and topple out of the garden and down the slopes…terrible!