I’ve been saying recently, in emails and with the GROW team, how in many ways I feel as if I could be in some small part of Vermont. I know that must sound crazy to say this little landlocked country in Africa reminds me of Vermont, but it does. The dirt roads, pine trees on the hills, chirping birds – all of it reminds me in some way of somewhere I have been before. As I said last time, a couple of us have been running every morning. And going up and down that steep hill to the fish ponds sends me right back to Wardsboro, Vermont with a similar dirt road set between large aging trees. Never mind that here the trees are a mix of eucalyptus and banana trees or that men and women trekking up and down have large loads balanced perfectly on their heads. It’s a feeling that I get every once in a while. Recently I have been thinking that it means I am beginning to feel “at home” here.
Although I have been asking myself, what is it that is so familiar? Maybe it’s being in a place I am comfortable with, maybe it’s being with people I am starting to understand, maybe it’s having a home we can come back to every night.
Yet as I begin to think that, to feel as if I could be sitting in a rural town in America, I get small reminders that I am, in fact, sitting in the most densely populated country in Africa, where 75% of all deaths are attributed to malaria, and 60% of the population live below the poverty line.
On Friday, a few of us went running on the track at the university. We sat on the bleachers before starting and watched two young kids run by – down the track towards the woods. The first was wearing a pale green shirt and had some object tucked underneath, which he held in place using his left arm. He’d occasionally look over his shoulder at the boy behind him. The second boy – probably around the same age – ran carrying a large bundle of oversized twigs. I thought nothing of it until they disappeared into the woods and a third boy (maybe a girl?) ran onto the track. This one had sticks in his hands and also a yellow can, medium-sized. The boy looked older than the other two, probably around 12. He glanced over his shoulder as a cop, carrying a heavy stick and wearing a blue uniform, chased behind.
I though for sure the boy could outrun him, but the cop gained speed and the child seemed to struggle with his black rubber flip-flops. His leopard printed overcoat fell off; he dropped the sticks, kept running, and then threw the can as he reached the turn in the track, to the right of us. The cop had caught up and hit him hard in the back. The boy turned and coward away from the policeman with his hands-up. It seemed like they might be talking until the cop hit him again in the stomach, and then once on his shoulder. Each strike making and audible smack against his skin. We watched, unsure of how to react. There were quite a few students, on the bleachers and lounging on the hill and while they watched as well, none seemed shocked. The police officer hit the boy the hardest right above the knee and then used his booted foot to lift the child’s legs from under him. I thought the man would leave him alone then, but instead he hit him twice more. After lying on the ground, the boy stood clutching his left quad and hobbled to pick up everything he’d dropped. The two of them then turned into the woods, presumably to find the other children.
And here I was making comparisons to home, yet amongst it all something like this happens – starkly contrasting Rwandan justice to that elsewhere. Just as I thought everything seemed so familiar… a small reminder that Rwanda is still a developing country despite the way we have been able to enjoy this country. And don’t get me wrong; the police don’t go around striking anyone. These kids had presumably stolen something, although I guess we’ll never know for sure. Yet the way of dealing with that, the punishment, is much different that what I’m used to.
There we were running on the track to stay fit while these boys were running in the same place to escape being beaten.
At then again, on Saturday, I got another reminder of where we are. My mom called to tell me that my grandfather has passed away after a couple of weeks of moving in and out of consciousness. And here I am, thousands of miles away, unable to be with my family. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. As I sit here in Rwanda thinking about him, I am grateful that he lived a full, joyous life with a loving wife, seven kids, a multitude of grandkids, numerous friends, and a remarkable career. There were so many in Rwanda who didn’t have that opportunity.
Both of these events reminded me that Rwanda is a place I am visiting. And as hard as it is not to be there with my family. I think of my grandfather often and will find time to celebrate his life here, as I would there.
If these two things have taught me anything, its to be grateful for where I come from and to open my eyes to everything I see here. Two months isn’t really that long, and while I want this place to become one of comfort and ease as we work with RVCP and the women of Huye, I also want to remember exactly where I am and why I am here.
Rwanda is a country of incredible resiliency and there is SO much to find here. From the food, to the history, to the people – everything. I should remember to soak up every minute of it, as this is a place far from home. And the five of us here should take this time to learn what we can and accomplish what we can in this place that is at once as familiar as it is foreign.