Mundane, ridiculous, contradictory, normal?

For the few first days at my host family’s house, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was nowhere for me to sit or ‘hang out’ other than the living room, which is dark and bare. The evenings are pleasantly cool and breezy, but there’s nowhere to sit outside either. I bought a plastic rug to sit on in my room, and finally decided to occupy the narrow concrete ledge along the perimeter of our house. When my mom cooks, I often crouch next to the imbabura, lean against the brick wall of our compound’s enclosure, or just stand around. I do a lot of crouching: over the laundry, the latrine, the dirty dishes. At first, I wondered why there weren’t any chairs or raised surfaces to spare our trembling quads and aching backs, but then I realized that my host mom bends over as seamlessly as a folding chair, like an experienced ballerina. She alternates between squatting and standing with just as much graceful ease.

Remaining clean here has been challenging because most Rwandans rarely wash their hands. In order to ‘wash’ my hands with some regularity (I’ve given up on using soap), I poked holes in the cap of a water bottle and finally settled for sprinkling my hands with water when it’s worth the effort (after a particularly dirty endeavor). Using the bathroom in an efficient and relatively sanitary manner has been equally complicated and difficult to master. Since my family doesn’t use toilet paper and there’s no light in the latrine, I have an awkward but successful system: I wear my toilet paper around my neck like a necklace (courtesy of my yoga mat’s carrying strap) to avoid setting it on the latrine floor, put on a headlamp, and set my handwashing water bottle outside. I look like a strangely equipped ghost buster, or just your stereotypical gear-heavy America; I make sure no one is around before surreptitiously donning my bathroom equipment and entering the latrine, headlamp ablaze and toilet paper swinging from my neck while the usual handful of cockroaches scurry along the walls or dart alarmingly close to the pit itself. How do Rwandans use latrines without light? Imperfectly, is the answer: let’s just say that aiming has proven to be challenging for amateur volunteers and veteran latrine-goers alike. In other words, I use the flushing toilet at the Peace Corps hub as often as I can. In fact, this is a cherished daily ritual we all practice: there’s always a long line for the indoor bathroom at the end of the day as we make our parting visit to the flushing toilet in the hopes of minimizing our latrine usage over the next twelve hours.

I’ve abandoned many sanitary standards and habits because attempting to preserve them all is exhausting, unsustainable, and eventually feels like a waste of time. I feel vaguely ill after eating market tomatoes rinsed with unfiltered water, but I’ll probably do it again; sometimes rebellious laziness trumps precaution, regardless of known and previously experienced consequences. Sometimes, my family makes passion fruit juice: my host brother rolls up his sleeves, guts a dozen passion fruits, and mixes them with water and sugar in a dull red plastic basin (the same one my mom uses to wash dishes, mop, and do laundry) with his bare hands. My host mom pours this hazy, light pink concoction straight from the basin into a glass pitcher; I was taken aback the first time she proceeded to pour me a tall glass. I drank the whole thing apprehensively, wondering which germs and parasites were swirling inside my cup. I’ve never seen my host brother wash his hands; I did see him take apart a chicken carcass that morning. The next time the same juice appeared, I gulped it down in defeat.

The first time my host mom helped me mop my room, she took the basin filled with my dirty laundry water, grabbed a dark brown towel encrusted with hair and gravel, and went to work: she splashed my floor with water, bent over 180 degrees, slapped the cloth onto the floor, and began methodically swishing it back and forth with her hands. Alarmed and puzzled by her method, I attempted to mop for myself a week later. When I feebly insisted on using clean water with soap rather than the muddy water she was offering me a second time, she sighed ruefully and pointed at my cloudy, perpetually mud-colored floor as if to say that I was waging a fruitless battle against the elements. She smiled, shook her head, and indulged me nonetheless. I’ve come to understand her perspective; since everything dirties very quickly, there’s little point in striving for sparkling floors. Even so, I’ll clean as if it’s not a lost cause until it really feels like one for me, too. I’ve since then bought my own rag, and I’ll concede that keeping the rag clean in order to keep my room slightly less dirty is much more of a headache than I realized.

Anything involving water is complicated and difficult in my household. I have a 7-liter water filter, but I use the unfiltered supply in my jerry can to bathe, mop, wash my clothes, and replenish my water filter. Refilling my jerry can is no small task: the large jerry cans my family has delivered are heavy and unwieldy; I’m amazed at my tiny host mom’s accuracy and strength when she heaves up a large container and pours water from her jug into mine. She let me try it once because I do ‘sport’ so I must be strong, and by the time I was done my arms were shaking and there was a large puddle on the floor. Maybe this is why Rwandans rarely drink plain water, and tend towards to tea, milk, or juice…and maybe this is why my host mom reuses dirty water to clean. However resourceful, this behavior baffles me: appearing clean seems more important than cleanliness itself.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have access to such an incredible variety of ingredients and cuisines in the U.S. I miss autumn for a similar reason; here, I occupy a seemingly endless summer rendered interesting by rain, sun, or chilly wind at different times of day. As much as I miss an abundance of culinary options and the thrill of changing seasons, I’m beginning to think that Rwanda’s relative stasis and even our daily consumption of the same 8 foods in vaguely creative recombinations have their own set of benefits. There’s something pacifying and reassuring about neither seeking nor expecting external change, and simply accepting a narrower spectrum of physical options. It means you aren’t always thinking about what to do next, what to make next, what you want next, or what you’ll feel next. This (sometimes monotonous) predictability has given my mind the freedom to pause and consider things beyond immediate physical stimulation.

By 7 am, the days here are in full swing. Even on the weekends, waking up at 7 feels like waking up at 11: you practically feel the buzz of people coming and going outside, and realize with a little twinge of guilt that you’re a little bit behind. Since there are few cars here, human wakefulness and movement are especially palpable; people crowd the roads and dirt paths, the sound of their footsteps and murmurs fill the air. Unlike road traffic, this kind of early morning bustle is too close and individual to ignore. On Sundays, we’re supposed to spend all morning with our families. The hours admittedly drag by incredibly slowly; when you wake up at 6 but have nowhere to be, 10 am feels like 2 pm. We have a love-hate relationship with Sundays: beautifully free after 6 straight days of class, but despairingly long after 6 straight days of structured purpose surrounded by people with whom you can share latrine stories and dream about peanut butter.

There are dozens of tiny children in this town, some with little backpacks and school uniforms, some with torn, dirty clothes; they wander the streets alone or in little packs. It’s the children who don’t know any better and shout “umuzungo!” (“white person!”) when we walk or run by them; they stare, wave, run with us, touch us, embrace us, or ask for money. Their cries, hugs, smiles, and handshakes are endearingly open, especially compared to the guarded reserve of many adults, but it’s unnerving to find yourself surrounded by children who eye you and cling to you like a fascinating apparition rather than a human being. It’s the children who don’t allow us to pretend we are invisible, and blow our illusory cover by descending on us in droves. Their attention is not derogatory or malicious, but their blatant exposure of our fragile position still feels like a hostile gesture. Even if it’s not their intention, these kids emphasize a significant source of insecurity and fear: that our difference will render us outsiders above all else.

I took many things for granted in the States: chairs, ceiling fans, kitchen islands, more than a few changes of clothes, toilet paper, cutting boards, privacy, mobility, options, the privilege of appearing normal, walking the streets unnoticed and undisturbed. Even so, my carefully selected pants, shirts, and shoes are no more capable of braving this climate that the flip flops that cost $1.50 at the market, and only detract from the anonymity I long for on the streets. While I shuffle around in waterproof pants, Chacos, and very intentional layers, Rwandans manage to step through mud, lithely pass from rainstorms to sunshine wearing nice, normal things. I’ve been marveling at the needs I create for myself in the States just because I can meet them if I want. At the end of the day, what I want most is a solitary, uneventful walk under a darkening sky.

Rwanda is its own bundle of contradictions. Women don’t show their shoulders or knees and frequently occupy more traditional roles; they don’t venture out too late to avoid being mistaken for prostitutes; I’m told that many female volunteers must constantly explain why they aren’t married, find accompaniment home after dark (after 6:30 pm), and rebuff aggressive advances. Men pay dowries to the families of their fiancées. During language class one day, we ventured out into my neighborhood to practice speaking with some locals. Our teacher led us to the first group of people we encountered: a crowd of young, male moto drivers who were standing around waiting for customers. Our interactions were decent overall, but we found ourselves taking small steps backwards to avoid their uncomfortable proximity; when one middle-aged man started stroking my hair (a source of great interest and conversation), I didn’t know if it was acceptable for me to betray my annoyance and wave his hand away. When I spoke with a currently serving volunteer, she gave me the advice I was hoping to receive: in some circumstances, it’s more important to stand by your boundaries than hold back for fear of behaving in a culturally unusual manner.

On the same day, I came across a women’s organization along a rural dirt road. A few weeks ago, the senator who came to speak at the umuganda I attended (a nation-wide morning of community service on the last Saturday of every month) was a woman. During my first and only classroom observation thus far, one of the most outspoken and articulate students was a girl, as was the student facilitator of the class debate. I’ve met several female shop-keepers, and my language teacher lives apart from her husband and daughter to work for the Peace Corps in our town. A few days ago, she wrote a paragraph for us to translate into Kinyarwanda that tells the story of a woman whose husband cooks and takes care of the kids while she is off at work. The story ends like this: “the children like their father more than their mother.”

At the end of the day, the nonsensical, superfluous, and ridiculous pervade daily life in Rwanda as much as they pervade daily life in the States. In the States it comes in the form of infinite Kroger shelves, strangely timed traffic lights, apple-slicers, and the four sets of dinner plates you never use because they’re always at the bottom of the stack. Here, driving or biking on one side of the street or the other seems more like a personal decision than a rule. Pedestrians are responsible for dodging traffic at their own risk, and bikers unpredictably zig-zag across the road as if they enjoy aiming for us only to veer out of the way at the very last second. People who appear well-groomed and un-dusty smell strongly like sweat. No one is ever in a rush, people walk slowly and treat time flexibly; they don’t explain what they’re doing or where they’re going. One day, I came home and my host mom’s friend was sleeping on the grass in the yard; another day my host father’s colleague crouched under one of our small papaya trees for several hours (I didn’t bother trying to find out why). My host dad himself comes and goes at inexplicable times; one night, I woke up at 3 am to his friend’s banging on the door to wake him up. Apparently, they had to leave for Kigali with a shipment of tomatoes. There’s a room I’ve never been in whose door is always shut; no one has explained what it’s for even when I’ve explicitly asked. I only found out a week ago that my host father has two older sons who are doing something who knows where.

Sometimes, these mysteries generate frustrating confusion, but they’ve also taught me to dwell a little longer on the present, to accept what happens next with a bit more patience and flexibility. Today, I’m enjoying my Sunday afternoon at Hotel Dereva, my slightly over-priced but marvelously real cup of coffee, and my weak but trusty wifi connection. I’m able to sit here for a few hours contentedly, without worrying about my first Language Progress Interview on Wednesday, fretting about my site placement, or wondering if I’ll have to walk home in the rain…


5 thoughts on “Mundane, ridiculous, contradictory, normal?

  1. Dear Lia,
    I so enjoy reading your blog and smiling to myself as I remember 1965 and living at Kitete, high above the Rift Valley. Those were two wonderful youthful, growing years which I woudn’t trade for anything. Keep writing and I will keep reading. Much love, Aunt Connie


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