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A VERY WESTERN PROBLEM! Journal of a Westerner in Rwanda

My journal of living in real Rwandan life

I am currently sat in the mid-dark of the small home of Manzi Juvenal in a small village on the outskirts of Kigali city. The bulb has blown because yesterday we were out of power all day in the village from the previous days storm. As we speak there is another thunder storm and the rain bashing down on the tin roof is deafening but also soothing, like being out in the caravan on a British summers day. This morning I was hoping to sit out and enjoy the sunshine and get a bit of a tan but unfortunately, I had to go and visit the local medical centre for an infection in an unspeakable place!

I have just finished dinner of boiled green bananas and small fish in a tomato sauce, cooked outside on the one gas stove.

"There's a little fishy on my little dishy"

I imagine it takes some planning but they seem to have truly mastered it and the food is always hot. The storms and the power cuts do not beat them.

Cooking by candlelight. Nothing stops Rwandans in their tracks!

As long as you have a gas bottle you have food, and even when you don’t you just build a fire. Back to my roots of girl guide camping!

When I first discussed with Manzi about coming to stay at his home he told me the facilities he had. I was a little concerned but as long as I had a flushing toilet I would be fine.

But when I arrived the bathroom facilities were just outside cubicles; one a pedestal in which to place a bowl of water and a bar of soap, the other a well constructed and clean hole in the floor!

The Bath/Shower room!

The toilet...with resident cockroach!

How on earth was I going to cope with this, especially knowing how much I usually need to use the bathroom in the night. Arriving in the middle of the night I did not have time to really adapt to the environment and so I laid wondering if I should have stayed in the comfort of a hotel. But I slept well and felt comfortable enough and in the morning I truly relished bathing out in nature. Listening to the crazy chickens next door, the birds beautiful chirps, the warmth of the air but coolness of the water. Suddenly it all felt ok.

The bathroom facilities

But for a couple of days I had to keep checking in with my reaction. I hate watching these reality programmes where celebrities push themselves into new territories only to complain about everything about it, demanding facilities that do not meet the culture they are in and completely disrespecting what it may take for that culture to give them what they have. I did not want to be one of these people so they were only split moments when I thought “What on earth am I doing here?”. But then I remember, I love meeting new cultures, experiencing what they are experiencing and seeing what values it can offer. Since then I have had no issue of waddling out in flip flops in the middle of the night to squat over the hole while my resident cockroach sits and watches me! One night if he is not there I shall miss him.

On route too the bathroom

So what is it that has enabled me to feel completely at ease with the bare minimums?

Firstly, I compared what provisions I have here and how this matches those that I actually need back home. The bed is comfy, the living room may be small but the sofas are very comfortable.

I have electric (although electric wiring to put the fear into my electrician father!)

to charge my camera and phones but have also survived when there was no power and so no phones….we just sat and talked by candlelight. Whilst a hairdryer and straighteners are not essential in this weather it is nice at times to be able to style my hair a little, to help combat the crazy humidity curls, but there is no stressing over the finished effect because by the time you have finished your hair is stuck to your neck with sweat again, so I just embraced the curls.

Secondly, people here have no expectations and make no judgements. They seem to really know what this means and so social anxiety is not an issue. I have Manzi and his young family member, Olivier who is staying. But unlike 17 year olds in the UK if he gets bored he will cook dinner, or clean the house, or do the washing.

Not something you see many 17yr old boys do in the UK!

One night I went outside and he was there bent over numerous bowls of water, washing all the cooking equipment from dinner in the pouring rain. One morning he was told he did not need to make breakfast but he was awake and wanted something to do. At times I feel guilty that I am not helping but if I did then he would just be bored and also it seems they love to be able be hosts and help you. I feel like I am the boss and treating him as my slave but whenever I mention what I am looking for they will jump to get it for me. Maybe next time, when I am not feeling quite so unwell I will ensure I help more.

But I wonder how that would be received? So I asked Manzi. In Rwanda there are no apparent cultural rules and it is to each individual how they want to be. But it is very common for women, as the guest, to still take on the role of worker and host. For me then it feels as though this can take away the opportunity for the man to take care of their guests, a role I see Manzi wanting to do.

Outside of the home I see many, many eyes watch me. In the UK if somebody is staring they are also likely judging, or in Muslims countries I’ve been too, particularly when men are looking, there is something very sinister felt. But here in Rwanda they are staring because we really are just an alien to them. It is something new and I know their brains need time to process what it is they are seeing Particularly when I went out in shorts one day I watched many eyes look down at my lily white legs in curiosity. But I never felt under threat and this was never felt as a sexual exploration of my body.

'Muzungu' - white person

There was a lot of resistance to having photographs taken, it seemed to be a shyness but I wonder also whether there is a distrust of why I am taking their photo. I don't know if they were perpetrators during the genocide or victims, but either way there could be a lot of confusion, fear and concern as to why the 'white person' wants to take their picture and what I would take the picture for.

Firstly they were just seeing white skin and trying to comprehend this. I also noticed different reactions depending on age and gender.

With young women there is a warm, giggly curiosity but also a real shyness. Whilst they prepare themselves pristinely they are very shy to have a photo taken, but I hear them giggling “Mzungu”, in some way relating themselves to me as a female (although not so young).

Young children are very curious but can be apprehensive of this alien. Once I offer a smile and a high five they may warm and come forward to touch my white skin to see how it may feel different to theirs. Some of them though I am still just too alien and will just stand on the sidelines watching.

And behind them there is always a mother or young women coming out to watch. Maybe they are just watching carefully to see if I am danger to their child, but maybe they are also very curious too. But they are much more shy at interacting and will watch me play with their children from the sidelines, the way the silver back protectively watches his children play from a distance.

For men I see something very different. They still stare but there seems to be little reaction, particularly older men who seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Younger men may like interacting, particularly if I take photos, but they are also very shy, but giggly, seemingly quite liking it too.

There is a real humbleness to all of this that enables me to feel safe.

However I wonder what may secretly going through their minds knowing the history of whites in their country. They don’t know which country I am from. Am I there to enforce my colonial western values onto them like the Belgiums did? Am I there to pity them and come to help them out of guilt like the United nations did after it was too late ? Am I there to view their tragic past as a tourist attraction? If I were then I was not likely to be found in this village. I would be in the city with my crisp new walking gear having trekked to see the gorillas and now come to pay my respects at the clinical architecture of Kigali Genocide memorial that left me feeling more detached from the genocide than anywhere I had seen or read about. I can’t criticise as I have done all of these at some point. But this time I just wanted to be with the people in their territory, not to change or enforce, but to observe and learn from them.

During this trip I got to walk amongst the people in many environments instead of just viewing at distance in a car. I travelled the Rwandan way on packed buses, hiring a driver for the day or on the back of a moto, a two person motorbike. The only thing I refrained from was the bicycle taxi. I was initially scared of the moto, of falling off the back, but after engaging my core muscles I soon got the hang of it and found the whole thing exhilarating.

This time I finally took a trip 'downtown' which is the main city centre of Kigali. From the outside and distance it is scarily becoming an international hub of skyscrapers and modern architecture for hotels and business. Any businessperson visiting Kigali for work could easily hide themselves away from the 'real' Rwanda. I hate to say, and maybe it is about being older, but it someway helps to reassure me that if all were to go wrong for me there then I could find sanctuary in a world I recognise. This said, feeling at my worst I still coped well with a regular medical centre for treatment.

As soon as you turn around the corner the 'high street' is still very much the claustrophobic tiny shops jammed as full as possible of produce. There is little commercialism or fancy storefronts. You duck in and out of each shop until you find what you are after. It took us 5 shops to find some shampoo for my muzungu hair.

These shops don't differ throughout Rwanda, whether it be shops on main roads, village stores or the large markets. It's not about marketing it's about finding what you need. There are restrictions on importing into the country in order to promote 'Made in Rwanda' so there is a big community cooperative of buying from your neighbour so they buy from you. Which means you can pretty much find anything you need.

And if they don't have it they will find a way around it! I forgot to bring a fully charged battery to a village visit. Without the right charger available the local electrical shop just stuck raw wires into it. In 20 minutes I got 16% charge.

Rwandan electrical charging!

The overall landscape is the same as any country in having the hub of a city centre, smaller suburbs leading into remote villages. But unlike the UK to live in a city based village is not for the rich but for the poorest. Within the city villages, such as the one I stayed in basic amenities are still provided for, such as electric and clean water and gradually more robust housing is being created through funding by the government. Within villages there are clear signs of huge development.

But further out are just small remote homes for each of the farmers and families, there merely to farm the land and take it to the village to sell.

Also the further out you go the worse the roads and paths are. It was touch and go whether I would be able to leave Manzi's home for the airport because it had been raining all day and the car could not get near. Walking further uphill in the mud was one thing but carrying a 25kg suitcase was another. But we found two local boys who carried them on their heads up the hill!

Tonight, after the rain settled I took a walk further down into Manzi’s village to see the view.

Of course we attracted the local children and found ourselves playing with them. They were a bit nervous playing with me but was joyfully playing with Manzi. However, a couple of days after I left they came around to bring 'Mazungu' two bananas!

Here I reflected to Manzi how the overall sound of the country is mellow and soft, even though you can hear many sounds. The noisiest being in the night when the local dogs shout out against their curfews. They have to be kept locked in and so when one barks in protest their comrades from all directions of the hills join in. In the village there are beautiful bird sounds and when you see them you see their delicateness. The crickets create a constant low level whistle while there is an occasional distinct whistle that could be a mobile phone tweeting. I hear children playing in the school far in the distance but gently carries across the space between the hills. Women are cackling with their men, children are crying and having a tantrum but still there feels to be little aggression. In the evenings some of the community come together for prayers and to sing.

With a noise pollution curfew you are able to hear beautiful singing everywhere as a way to entertain themselves. On the packed bus home four members of the national community choir serenaded us with beautiful and touching harmonies. Whilst I am not religious you can’t not be touched by the beauty of the voices and soul. The children could be heard next door trying to sing 10 green bottles and as we sat in a quiet bar for lunch the school choir behind were practising their perfect harmonies. Again there is a softness and warmth to all their tones.

Post-visit journal

After my first trip, shutting up shop, paying off all my debts and running away to a nice simple country seemed idyllic. I thought this trip was going to merely enhance this decision and many times when I was there I was certain I would do this. So I was surprised to have come back a little more despondent. Having independently made arrangements for this trip it seemed a little more haphazard and unstructured and unfocused. But I have come to realise that this is just about me. I also went there to experience the real life of living within the country the way they do, not just attending lots of professional meetings and staying in comfortable hotels.

I loved the experience and I knew that to embrace it I needed to sit back and just relax into it without the formalities and structure I usually place on myself. Going with the flow was lovely but now I am back home I have realised how hard this is to do with my head going in so many directions, particularly now shared between two countries. Enjoying, embracing and just ‘being’ seems fairly rare back home and my head is just full of the next task I need to get done so lets just not do feelings.

Since I have returned from Rwanda I have felt very lost but also aware my experience has been tarnished by returning with an infection in a place you don’t want an infection. And so all I wanted to do was to get back to the cold of the ‘Beast from the East’ and the comfort of my own home, shower, bed and routine. The infection still consumed my emotions and left me seeing my experience with some slightly darker tinted spectacles.

At Ivuka Art gallery I spoke with an elderly gentleman who had been living there for the last 3 years with his wife, working with the Red Cross. He told me that whilst Rwanda is a beautiful country and has been a joy to live there he does feel the need to get out of Kigali at least once a week and feels he has run out of things to do. At first I felt a bit cynical about this because as an artist there is always ways to create. But after my last nights entertainment I realised that some of the things I really enjoyed, such as high quality theatre and cinema, was very limited there.

In my two visits I feel I have already covered most of Kigali, unlike London which I know I have barely touched the skin of over the years. Could I cope long term without that depth exploration as somebody who is always craving new experiences and views. In some ways I worry it may actually close my eyes.…but then would this enable me to look deeper in rather than keeping searching out?

Three weeks on, and having gotten through a wonderful weekend for my parents 50th Wedding Anniversary I can now see things more clearly and feel I can breathe again and reflect more positively. I am not yet committed to leaving or staying but I have plenty to do for Rwanda still from here and will certainly be returning.

It may be about my age but I finally feel the need for some of my creature comforts back home. I hate that Western society has embedded in me so much but this are my roots. But whilst back home my heart is always thinking about Rwanda, particularly this week as they start their week of remembrance of the genocide. My work now at home is all towards projects in Rwanda and my art is focused in this direction. For the first time in my life I feel settled and accepting of the UK and I am scared to lose this.

But there is still something missing, a heart that I always find from the people in Rwanda.

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