Mama Wanjye

At first, my host mom and I could hardly communicate with one other. Whenever we ate dinner just the two of us, she was very quiet. She looked down into her plate and crossed her legs demurely, she on one couch and I on the other. I pathetically battled the silence between us by showering her with desperately effusive thank you’s for her care. She didn’t look me in the eye very often; it took me several weeks to realize that she didn’t avert her gaze with apprehensive reticence, but to give me privacy in my confusion. She respected my embarrassing disorientation by kindly looking away, and giving me unspoken permission to find relief in solitude far from searching eyes.

Before we could converse, I assumed she had few dimensions. I judged her superficially, within the wrong cultural framework from a misguided, misinformed perspective. I forgot that our lack of sophisticated interaction didn’t mean she lacked a sophisticated interior, or the capacity to handle our unusual living situation with incredible tact. Time and time again, she’s proven me wrong for underestimating the depth of her perceptiveness and care just because she waited to approach me, and waited for me to discover her patience on my own instead of waving it in my face or attempting to explain herself to me. In retrospect, saving parts of herself for when I can understand them has always been part of her plan: she did not withhold herself from me as much as I projected my ignorance onto her identity and demeanor.

I didn’t know it at first, but she has always watched me carefully, noticed how I like to live without rendering me a spectacle or an object of interrogation. One morning, I ate an orange after breakfast because I was still hungry; I left the peel on my plate without thinking. The next morning, there was an orange next to my usual serving of bananas and bread. She has quietly let me live and lived a little more quietly herself to better understand me before exposing the extent of her playful, thoughtful, and passionate self. What I initially perceived as distant reserve was her wise, responsive approach to my presence in her home. She molded herself to me gradually and conscientiously, and she’s let me mold myself to her just as slowly.

I used to think she sat at home all day to cook and clean at the melancholy, languid pace of unwilling exertion. I assumed she was missing the stories and qualities I didn’t think or know how to uncover, that she was only capable of thinking and feeling what my cursory understanding of Rwanda and Kinyarwanda allowed me to imagine at the time.

The woman I once imagined mopping floors from dawn to dusk has a myriad of friends whom she visits nearly every day. The woman I once assumed was unfree has a freer spirit than most people I know. When I first saw her headscarf, I assumed she obeyed culture and religion rather than her own, strong will. In reality, she cares little about religion (she used to be Catholic, now she is Muslim) because they share the same God. She knows how to drive, she loves to dance, hum, and sing songs she learned in primary school in Tanzania, where she grew up; before getting married, she was a nurse. She loves talking to her sisters on the phone, like I do. More than anything her freedom manifests itself in the freedom she gives me. I have a key to the compound so I can leave to go running in the morning, and she doesn’t question the strange thumps that come from my room when I do squat jumps on my yoga mat. She doesn’t judge me for spending Sunday mornings writing in my room, for using lots of water to wash an absurd amount of clothes. She embraces me without imposition because she does not impose on herself, either.

She would have remained a flat mystery to me without the intimacy of our cohabitation, and the gift of an increasingly shared language. She is a whole, multi-faceted person, whom I initially reduced to the small, unassuming quality of her physical presence. She goes about her tasks deliberately and softly, she moves through the house slowly; I’ve never seen her work or move with haste. I finally understand the generosity at the root of her slow gestures: her measured steps and careful movements leave room and time to meet everyone’s needs, to fall in step behind me if I’m shuffling to the door on my way to school. She fills her days with tasks she chooses to complete rather than with obligations she rushes to finish.

She’s curious about America without denigrating her life in Rwanda or openly longing for the things she doesn’t have. If anything, she’s amused and awed by the way Americans live: the way men in America cook and take care of the kids while women go to work, the way my own mom washes dishes in the sink. It’s expensive, she says ruefully, with a cheery twinkle in her eye. Whenever these topics arise, usually she winds up laughing, as if making ends meet is important, but only to a certain extent when you have what you need to live nonetheless: basins to wash dishes, jerry cans of water, a trusty if not speedy, charcoal stove. I didn’t realize how well we were capable of understanding each other, how much I’d be able to confide in her through facial expressions, gestures, and a handful of words strewn together in the present tense.

She’s quiet in the mornings and she doesn’t like big groups of people; she looks solemn and forlorn when I catch her wandering near the market, a waif-like figure whose tentative steps in no way reflect the dynamic woman she becomes at home, who crosses her bony arms, looks down at her children, and curbs the slightest hint of ill behavior with a meaningful look. She mysteriously orchestrates everything, serenely and effortlessly; she slips in and out of rooms, opens and shuts cupboards, rinses and stores dishes in a seamless process I’ve only glimpsed in bits and pieces. The smoothness of her movements contrast starkly with the comparative jerkiness of mine; I catch myself jabbing keys into my lock, semi-sprinting to the latrine in the morning so as not to be late for my run, swinging the door open and shut, sighing heavily about trivial minutes lost. Sometimes, I have to eat individual beans one at a time so I don’t always finish eating first.

Often, the moments we connect the most are not those in which I sweat over a carefully constructed question about her family in Tanzania, her past, her religion, about whether she likes cabbage, whether she’s tired or likes her kids’ school. It’s usually those moments when I string together a silly story about my day, whose punch line constitutes a dramatic re-enactment rather than a sophisticated turn of phrase. She laughs and laughs when I tell her about the bicycles and motorcycles that aim for us in the streets, the trucks that beep at me when I’m running. She bends over and slaps the couch with mirth when I show her what it’s like to be cramped inside a car, American style, commuting on the highway.

One night, the electricity cut off right before we sat down to eat. I took out my Peace Corps issued lantern, and we used it to fill our plates, travel back to the living room, and take bites somewhat less blindly. We hunched over the coffee table (a misnomer in this case, since I’m the only reason coffee has ever crossed her threshold) and chuckled as we tentatively poked at our shadowy potatoes. She laughed and laughed when I appeared from my room with my bulky, high-tech lantern, and chirped “Murakoze Peace Corps!” to mask the awkwardness I feel when it becomes apparent that I have so much stuff capable of making our lives significantly easier. I don’t know, in these moments, if the plastic blue lantern, complete with a solar panel and USB charging port, means anything to her, or if she’s indifferent.

The light of the lantern grew dimmer and dimmer, just as I had expected; the catch of the rechargeable lantern is that its bright light fades after 15 minutes of use. We doubled over with laughter again as I explained this flaw in broken Kinyarwanda. We hurriedly finished eating as the last rays of light faded away, and I wondered out loud what my host brothers would do when they got home. Eat outside by moonlight?! My host mom shrugged; thirty minutes later, I walked into the living room and my host brothers were reclining as they normally do on two separate couches, illuminated by the elegant light of a slender candle at the center of the coffee table where a long shadow flickered back and forth, quietly eating dinner. I felt like a fool for assuming that my clunky lantern had no precedent or alternative, for assuming that she didn’t have her own, better way.

I have to think that when my Mama’s eyes brim with warmth, they contain some kind of unconditional love for me, a strange American girl she’s welcomed into her home. I wear the same expression in her regard to my own surprise: I suppose you can know someone and come to love them just by existing together with a receptive, open mind. I still wonder if she is keeping parts of herself from me: maybe, she knows from experience that the content of our relationship has its limits, even if the authenticity of our affection for each other does not.



2 thoughts on “Mama Wanjye

  1. I remember the little tin kerosene lamp: karabai I think it was called. No electricity in the entire village. I’ve never seen the stars so bright and so close. When Uncle Garry was away I would stay with Ama Baran, sleeping in the loft with her and the kids. Baran slept in the loft opposite. Ama Baran was so kind and we grew very fond of each other. XxxxxxAunt Connie


  2. Dear Lia,

    My last visit to Tanzania was in 2006, just after attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings in Kenya as an Observer for Ithaca College. (These are the same COP meetings that are going on in Bonn, Germany right now). So that’s a long time ago. Long retired, I now do my African “travels” vicariously. Last year it was via a Cornell graduate student in Development Sociology doing her field research on the Tanzanian coast. Now it’s your turn!

    Years ago, at my urging, one of my anthropology advisees spent a semester abroad in Arusha Region, not far from where Aunt Connie and I have lived many times for many years. After she returned, at the department’s Reports from the Field night, she showed some slides of her research project and home stay, and passed around a basket, some cloth, and a hoe, but mostly she talked about the month she had with her host family. “Look at them,” she said. “They have nothing and would give you anything. And look at us . . . .” And sat down and wept.

    You write so beautifully. Thank you.

    With love, Uncle Garry


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