During our recent visit to the U.S. embassy in Kigali for a fourth of July party (which Alyssa will explain in her own post) we were reminded of the American culture, which we are naturally so accustomed to accept. However, after more than five weeks in such a foreign place, we saw our own culture in a new light; deeply contrasting with the one we’ve been living in.
As many GROW members have stated in previous posts, many aspects of Rwanda are similar to the U.S. For example, cars drive on the right side of the road, pine trees line the hills, teenagers answer text messages and parents get worried when their infants wonder too far. As the two of us write this blog in the back row of a bus, pausing to readjust after especially large bumps, we believe the best to describe the true essence of Rwanda is through a metaphor about quilts
So. If Rwanda and America were both quilts, a person standing 20 meters away would probably notice similar bolded colors, general shapes, and sizes. But as they walked closer, they would be able to notice the intricate differences in the weaving of the threads, the complexities of the designs, and perhaps even the occasional loose thread. These intricacies, which are unique to every quilt, and culture, are what we love about Rwanda and are the foundation of what makes our experience here so foreign to that of spending the summer at home.
Just as these qualities are so naturally woven into a quilt, they’re also fundamental to our daily lives. So it is important for us to enable you to stand close enough to the Rwanda quilt, giving you the opportunity to truly grasp that which we love about this country and experience: the small things.
1.The art of balancing
Especially coming from two American klutzes, we are in awe of Rwandan men and women who seem to have the ability to balance almost anything; on their heads, arms, backs, and bicycles. It’s a common sight to see a women carrying a colorful umbrella to shade the sun, with a basket of food on her head, all the while glancing back to smile at the infant strapped to her back with the simple knotting of an African cloth. Even the process of getting a baby onto a woman’s back is remarkable. The two of us sit together in angst at the end of our Sunday sessions as the mothers expertly bend at the waste with their infants perched on their bare backs, gathering the clothe that will hold the child in place. We worry for no reason though because the mothers perform this act several times a day and the child’s only movement, as his mother prepares the wrap, resembles a swimmer’s stroke for balance. On one street we observed a man carrying at least a five foot tall stack of full egg cartons, walking confidently to his destination. Near him was a man pushing a rickety bicycle piled high with Rwandan Foam mattresses, strapped with only a few knots of rope, as he weaved between pedestrians. But these are just a few examples of the balancing feats observed on a daily basis. If we were to sit for half an hour on a Butare street, we would witness the balancing of 15-foot saws, shelving units, full branches from Banana trees complete with bouquets of bananas, huge burlap sacks of dried leaves, bunches of live chickens tied together like a bundle of balloons, and school backpacks. But we’ve heard that the head is the most efficient way to carry weight and we’ve even seen people with empty hands and a wallet sized bag perched as if they simply know no other way to carry their belongings.
2. African tea (and the fact that it comes as more than one serving)
Let us first describe to you the beauty that is African tea as self-proclaimed addicts. With a base of boiled milk so fresh it could have just come out of an udder (and probably did), the black tea is garnished with various spices common to the area, such as ginger and nutmeg. We’re relentlessly searching for the true list of ingredients for fear of withdrawal once we return home. Not only is the tea a perfect blend of spice, milk, and strong tea, but at every restaurant it’s served on a woven placemat with a saucer, sugar dish, and one large thermos holding the equivalent of three cups. As Greg Mortinson said, at the first cup you’re strangers, the second cup you’re friends, and the thirds you’re family. Katy likes hers with a spoonful of sugar and Carrie drinks hers without, yet either way the warm sensation is enough to satiate any palate.
3. Affectionate greetings
Looking back on the first couple of days, our greetings were awkward and must have seemed rude. The most standard greeting here are as complex as a child’s secret handshake in the U.S. One form has some resemblance to European cheek kissing; two people brush cheeks three times, switching sides for each stroke. However, the more familiar you are with the greeter the movement becomes more of a intimate swipe as you brush foreheads rather than complete the three cheek-to-cheek meetings. After all of the intimate head choreography, your hands embrace into a strong shake and they remain as so for the duration of the conversation until you go your separate ways.
In more casual greetings between less familiar people, perhaps at a meeting, a new comer will make sure to shake the hands of everyone in the room, one by one, even if the room is full. We’ve notice in the villages, where men do the affection head bumps, women will grasp forearms while they greet and exchange pleasantries. Though we still are unsure what greeting will come our way, we at least know how to execute each of the options.
4. The love of Fanta
Fanta girls should film their commercials here. If we were to split drinks into three main categories there would be tea, beer, and Fanta. Fanta is the Kleenex of soda in Rwanda. Served in old-school glass bottles, you can get Citris, Orange, Fruit punch, and the latest flavor, Fiesta. Its served at every restaurant, offered as the drink of choice at ceremonies and marches, and presented at weddings. Accompanying each purchased bottle is one long white straw. But, even though Rwandans are in love with Fanta, we still chose African tea.
5. Taxis, bicycles, buses, motorbikes
Bicycle taxis is one form of transportation we never thought we’d use in the Land of One Thousand Hills. The bikes themselves made of piecemeal metal, seemingly welded together to survive the bumpy roads. Attached to the back of the seat is a metal shelf. When we pick our taxis, we always go for the ones with the largest cushions. We usually ride the bicycles on the way back from the clinic, where there are hardly any motorbikes to be found. The ride, although at times hard to stomach, is enjoyable as we cycle through villages, past shoe stands, and the endless sight of rolling hills, small houses, and banana trees.
WE LOVE MOTORBIKES. Although it’s quite a fiasco to actually choose which bike you’ll be riding on. All of the drivers sit on one corner of the main stretch in Butare, waiting for customers. As we haggle the price of a ride, helmets are shoved into our arms. Some even take our hands in theirs and place their helmet into them, giving us no choice but to go with them. Motorbikes are definitely our favorite mode of transportation. There’s something exciting about the five of us, sometimes even 7 or 8, driving together as a pack through the Rwandan hills. On a recent trip to the Beekeeping project, the bikes literally took us over a river and through the woods. We’d pass villages on narrow dirt paths through tall grass and corn in a single-file line, drawing on-lookers. When we reached a bridge made of tree trunks that extended over a river, we had to get off to walk across, rejoining our driver on the other side. The two of us always wave and smile as our motorbikes seem to race each other – we would reach out to high-five but we are holding on too tight.
There are also buses and taxis, were we sometimes have to fit 6 in the back seat. For longer trips, buses are the only way to go. And sometimes, we are lucky enough to have a Rwandan nap on our shoulder as we make our over bumps and dusty roads.
6. Power Outages
With the first sightings of lightening, or sounds of raindrops on our tin roof, we brace ourselves to lose power. Though we can expect to lose power during storms, there are many times where the outages are completely random, and by some coincidence they always seem to happen at the most inconvenient times, like while we prepare dinner or are in the shower. Since the sun sets before 6:30, as we are so close to the equator, we have long evenings, which become even longer with no lights. Though these occasions are inconvenient, they are also quite amusing, as we stumble around together with headlamps and phones to help us find our way.
7. Crawling into our bed nets
Another place where flashlights are particularly useful is in our beds, under our bug-nets. Though the nets can be a bit annoying when we have to fight our way through the net into our beds, and when we have to tuck them under the mattress around us, we have a special place in our hearts for them when we’re falling asleep, listening to the buzzing of who-knows-what-kind-of-bug on the other side. Especially after our recent visit from a mango-sized African beetle, we will definitely not be sleeping anywhere without our beloved little nets.
8. Getting food
If you think we’re six or seven hours ahead of US time, we’re probably actually an hour behind, because we’re still waiting for our food. It’s best to go to dinner when you’re still full from lunch, because by the time the food actually arrives you’ll be starving. It’s fitting that we’re writing this post as we wait for our tea. Though the food can take hours to arrive, the wait is completely worth it. The same passion we feel for African tea applies to tilapia filets, goat brochettes, and tropical fruit plates. Also, some of our best conversations have taken place in the hours waiting for food.
9. Washing our feet together before bed
True to warnings from last year’s GROW team, Rwanda can be dirty. Our feet are the most common victims of the rich red dirt. After a long day of motor bike rides, walking to campus and through cassava fields, our feet are a new shade. Though it first seemed like we may have gotten a nice sandal tan, we quickly realized that the color does not belong to us at all. We have taken to practicing a nightly ritual of bathing our feet in the bath. After watching the red dirt stream down our drain, we give our feet one last scrub and then tiptoe to our beds, carefully shielding our clean toes and heels from any lingering dust particles.
10. Constant breastfeeding
The precautions taken by American mothers now seem frivolous after spending so much time around the women here. For one thing, the careful practice of breastfeeding in the U.S. – that often takes place in the home or under a maternity blanket – is not observed here. We commonly see babies clinging to their mothers with one arm, breastfeeding as she walks along. And at the sessions on Sunday, women are neither shy nor frugal when offering their infants (and even toddlers) some of their breast milk. It’s a sight we’ve gotten used to, and something that will be strangely missing when we return home to baby formula, heated bottles, breast-pumps, and maternity blankets.