Sunday, June 13, 2010

Settling In

Over the past week I spent some time in the field with the second Alex I have met in Rwanda. This one is a Rwandan who works for the Rwandan Agriculture Development Authority (RADA).

On Wednesday night I spent the night in a place called Huye, and it turned out that Eric Dwyer, a contact I was put in touch with before coming, lived there in Butare, which is essentially the same place as Huye. He was having dinner with a friend when I got in touch with him, and he invited me over. Hilda, a Belgian woman who worked with vocational education programs, was dining with him. She told a story about a Rwandan named Jean-Pierre, who apparently could be a world-class marathon runner, but instead of pursuing a career in this, runs a camp for kid athletes.

Eric had a story about arranging for trash to be picked up. After moving into a house in Butare paid for by the university, he started to notice trash in the backyard. Eric thought it might be blown by the wind or thrown over by some kids, until it kept piling up. Turns out, it was HIS trash, and the guy who helped with the house, Israel, didn’t think it was that big of a deal.  Talking to the university, they told him that the previous tenants had just dug a hole for trash. Eric felt like he was demanding too much, but he just couldn’t deal with a hole. A university administrator agreed to come look at the situation in a week. Too long. Eric found out about a woman who ran a trash pickup service. When he met her, he encountered a beautiful woman dressed in regal traditional dress. What a trash lady! However, she charged 25,000 Rwandan francs (amafaranga in the local lexicon; exchange rate approx 580 RF = 1 USD) for a month of weekly service. There was a plan for a family of 4 for 5000 RF…Eric was baffled by the difference, but then the woman said, “Well, you people make more trash.” When Eric told Israel, he said he would go talk to her. Israel proudly stated, “I am African, I am cheaper!” Eric joked with Israel that he had just spent all day at the 7th Day Adventist  church and was ready to lie for Eric. Anyway Israel ended up finding a 17-year-old boy with a large bag who would pick up the trash three times a week for 2500 RF/month. It was the boy’s first job…After the first week of blissful trash removal, a thought crept into Eric’s head, and he tentatively asked Israel what the boy did with the trash. Israel answered, “He – have – hole!”

Friday afternoon I went on my first run in Africa. After slathering on sunscreen, putting on my running clothes, and plugging myself into my iPod, I headed out on my mission. Turning left outside the apartment gates, I went just a few feet before turning down a dirt road that went almost straight down a steep hill. Already I drew stares as my feet pounded and I breathlessly uttered “Mirwe” (hello) to people I made eye contact with. After reaching the bottom of the hill below the apartment complex, my first target was in site, a beautiful golf course with a large reservoir at the end near me. It was strange to see people golfing after I had just run down a dirt road past extremely poor people. I ran past the golf course, which was in a valley, and part of the way up another hill, to arrive at the front gates of beautiful mansions – at least what I would call mansions with my upbringing in the US. These places were nicer than almost anything you could find in Las Cruces, though not at the level of a Hollywood celeb’s. Tall fences, heavy gates, armed guards, and manicured lawns. As I ran along the curving street in front of these houses, I passed a fitness club where the children of the elite were swimming and playing tennis while uniformed staff waited with drinks and tended a barbecue. A while later and I was looking for a road to try to get back to the apartment. The roads in Rwanda follow the contours of the hills, and so there are few cross streets – not really any grid to speak of. I took the first one I reached, a dirt road that twisted in the general direction of the apartment area, which I had lost sight of – significant when one considers that it is on the crest of a tall hill, which I was beneath. Running through slums once again, I received a mix of cheerful, amused, impassive, and slightly annoyed looks. Some children would try to run behind me until their mothers called them back, and nearly all of them would cheerfully shout “Muzungu!” (white person – not sure if it’s the same for males and females). Some would also call out “Muzungu, amafaranga, give me money!” Most mothers didn’t even glance up from their work when I went by. Men would either wave, do nothing, or stare with a what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here look – a question that I did not fail to consider. And maybe I was being stupid or arrogant – running with good shoes (though not particularly fancy by American standards), my ipod headphones in my ears, sweat pouring down my face, and even the fact that I was running for pleasure and fitness, declaring the fact that I had plenty to eat, in fact an excess of nutrition readily available to me. All the same, I don’t know how to justify not running among all types of people (especially in a country as safe as Rwanda) and confining myself to a health club (which I can’t afford) or just the main streets, where I would choke on exhaust, hurt my knees from the impact on hard bricks, and bother pedestrians. Anyway I didn’t have a choice mid-run, and kept going even though I didn’t know where the road went, except uphill, which is what I needed. To my chagrine, it petered out into a one-person-wide footpath after about 10 minutes, and I did not want to retrace my steps. After hesitating for a second, I started straight up the hill, essentially walking through people’s “front yards,” within inches of their doorways on the hard-packed earth which I am sure is used exclusively by people who actually live there. The first person I ran into I said hello to in Kinyarwanda and pointed up, asking Kacyiru (area where I live), yes? After understanding that I was trying to get back to the main road through Kacyiru, the woman pointed and confirmed my guess. I bowed my head, said “murakoze” (thank you), and headed off. Immediately after, I heard singing and sure enough, spied a group practicing in a church. This was one of those wonderful moments you hope for, and I stopped to listen for a moment, as I have been out of shape and out of practice. After a few more twists and turns, I reached the top of the hill and was immersed in the busy-ness of Boulevard de l’Umuganda, which led straight (although no path in Rwanda is straight) to the apartments. Cars and motorcycles whizzed by, yellow-shirted guys sold airtime for Rwanda’s three mobile phone operators, and well-dressed professionals and young people stared at me: sweaty, dusty, eyes stinging from sweat  and sunscreen, sleeveless shirt, farmer’s tan and a smile.

1 comment:

  1. Owen, this is great. Great information. Love the way you describe what you are seeing and experiencing as you go. I can almost see it.
    Keep up the good work and blogs.