Monday, May 18, 2009


3 Feb.

“Why you not take the… um… the… marks from your shoe?” said she in broken English not twenty feet from my front gate, pointing to my mud-encrusted shoes. The trainers boasted of a walk down a dirt road in the dark after yesterday afternoon’s rain. But the shoes were also the only logical choice to accompany my particularly casual outfit. I could care less about how muddy and dusty my shoes were—especially as I knew they would get all the more soiled while walking on down to Kicukiro Center to catch a Taxi into the city; but I knew better than to say that to a Rwandan. I carefully considered Jeanette’s question instead.
Jeanette—my language helper—had “agreed” to let me pay her way into ‘Town’ (Umugi wa Kigali) after our Tuesday language lesson so as to help me navigate city transport. Although I didn’t need the ‘help,’ I forced myself to promote my own cultural ‘learning’.
Lesson #1: Rwandans love to clean their shoes and cars (nevermind water shortages… they MUST remove the mud!) The Rwandese are preoccupied with a particularly acute sense of pride in well-manicured hairdos and finely pressed outfits, freshly swept street gutters and raked lawns. And EVERYONE seems to value the dazzle of a mud-less, dust-less, well-polished shoe. Except for me.
“Oh, I didn’t have the time to clean them today,” I replied nonchalantly at long last. “I just happened to be walking in the dark last night. It was tough navigating the muddy bits of the road.” My answer was feeble at best, but honest nonetheless.
“Well,” replied Jeanette in a stern tone that seemed forced for her normally soft-spoken voice, “people clean teh shoes, because tere ees no dirt in town… so you clean teh shoes to keep clean town.” (She might as well have simply said, “Tisk, tisk.”)
“Strike one,” I thought. I tried to shake the guilt of my cultural blunder during our taxi (bus) ride into town. Luckily there were other “stimulations” to draw my attention...
Ahhhh, the African “Matatu”. It’s a “Taxi-Bus,” really… or, rather, a vehicle the size of a small VW van into which 19 people can (and will) be crammed. Consider this your warning: don’t take an African Taxi-bus if you’re claustrophobic , for it’s a legalized ‘clown car’ experience in its truest sense for those who are not accustomed to climbing over market bags squeezed into impossible spaces, or to people’s rear ends being shoved in the faces of black-and-blank-faced, staring strangers seated behind the row in which a Muzungu-skinned self grazes over sliver-sized, plastic encased seats to shimmy in or out of the side, sliding door.
And note that you would be awarded such an experience only if you’re able to fight for your spot on the Taxi in the first place. You see, there are no lines at bus stops. (Queuing is generally a novel concept in many African contexts, actually…) You won’t hear, “Oh, you were here first? Then, please, by all means… step ahead of me!” NOPE. You’ll get a seat on the bus if you jab, joust (and maybe even shout) for it.
Taxi parks (expanses of [typically-unpaved] space, crow-barred between market stalls and an un-safe street into which countless vehicles miraculously maneuver between stationary and mobile like slinky’s making their way through a maze) are generally jostling and loud anyway. You will be doing the same, mind you, to navigate said spaces in order to find your ride: jockeying for footing as you weave an illogical and hapless course, like a fox trying to stave the hound off a hunt. You will ask, “Iyi tagisi irajya he?” (“Where is this taxi going?”) of just about anyone within earshot.
That’s right, there are no bus numbers, no timetables. No signs, no consistent parking spots that might mark a bus’s destination… just the ‘Callers’ as I like to call them. Thank God for the ‘Callers’.
The Caller: what a fanciful persona he is. Strong-voiced and strong willed, forceful and coercing—in the best-of-business-interest sense, that is—as he shouts a taxi’s destination to passers-by and even pokes them into a persuasive awareness of that person’s obvious need to board HIS bus. Indeed, he might be SO successful at said task that he convinces the random individual to climb on in, to sit for a spell then—miracle of miracles—to snap out of it and alight before the taxi’s motor turns over.
Yes, certain passengers actually get off the bus while it sits there, idling—not because they’re impatient; not because the taxi’s destination wasn’t communicated clearly (and loudly!), but because they weren’t paying attention. After the caller SCREAMS the bus’s destination anther 30 times in every direction, usually at least ONE person realizes that he or she boarded the WRONG bus… (“You mean I’m not going to Remera after all…?! But, that caller was so persuasive… I just wanted to be on HIS bus…!”)
This sad but amusing reality happens much more often than one might think it should. But I’ve been aboard enough taxis already to get an empathetic kick out of it. One almost feels “hassled” onto a half-empty vehicle which, in truth, is a comparably serene place to ponder life off the saturated streets whilst waiting for the remaining ten seats of the bus to be filled. Even I might be inclined to change my mind if I sat there long enough…
Which brings me to another African nuance of public transport: a taxi won’t pull away until it has reached full capacity. This departure gestation, I have decided, is a matter of chance. It’s anyone’s guess as to how long the it might take—on the second Tuesday of a month during the rainy season at 9:43 AM—to fill a taxi-bus.
On this particular day, Jeanette and I waited a mere 10 minutes before pulling away from Kicukiro Center… lucky us J The ride into town was relatively painless. I vacated my seat only five or six times so as to allow others to climb towards the exit. Only one man expressed reluctance to sit next to the “muzungu,” but at least I made his choice worthwhile: he got a snicker out of my attempts to speak ikinyarwanda.
Even my amused grin lingered as we walked from the taxi park to the bank. Jeanette and I plodded along at a subdued pace with seemingly subdued demeanors. I uncomfortably fished for questions to pose; she graciously and sweetly delivered one-word answers. There just didn’t seem to be very much to say. And so our day continued in palpable awkwardness. In awkwardness, we waited at perhaps one of the only financial institutions valuing a “Take-A-Number” system, but not so highly valuing speedy service. Once I had my money in-hand almost thirty minutes after arriving, we left the bank and headed towards a supermarket.
The “To Do in Town” list was short and sweet: I had to go to the bank and to the grocery store. Despite the brevity of the day’s excursion, I was tired from my recent bout with amoebas and thus motivated towards efficiency. I opted to stop at a larger supermarket in town instead of at a preferred grocery store (which Americans would consider a “corner store”) on the way home. After coursing the isles of the grand “Simba Market” looking for curry powder and cheese, balsamic vinegar and green beans, yogurt starter and brown sugar, Jeanette and I wound up in the bakery empty handed. At that point I was even more acutely aware of my fatigue and empty stomach. The store didn’t have what I was looking for, but it DID have wonderfully appetizing croissants. I needed energy, so I bought two croissants at 500 Rwandan Francs a piece (less than $1 each)… one for me, one for Jeanette.
“Here you go… you first,” I announced, passing the already grease-stained pastry bag to Jeannette after the checkout counter as I fumbled with my change and receipt.
“Hm?!?” she responded skeptically, eyebrows raised in alarm. “Now?!? HERE…?!?” she asked in astonishment, desperately searching for a more suitable context in which to nibble a flaky treat.
“Uhhh…. Yes?” I ventured hesitantly. “It’s ok?” I said, surveying the lobby of the building in which the grocery store was situated as if looking for indicators that eating might be STRICTLY forbidden there.
“Well, we do not… I say, in Rwanda, one not eats like t’ees. We eat at teh house. Not eat outside… erhhh… in teh city.”
GULP. Blunder number two. My eyes naturally averted hers as my gaze fell floor-wards, where the mud on my shoes seemed to glow. “As if my white skin and muddy shoes weren’t offense enough,” thought I, critically.
Jeanette, meanwhile, surprisingly took the largest bite I had ever seen taken of a croissant. “No, no, you don’t have to eat it here!” I blurted, trying to retract my previous suggestion. “I don’t want to be ‘incorrect.”
“’Eet’s ok,” she replied, mouth full. “I eat now, like you.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I just thought a quick bite to eat would be a nice way to gain some energy before heading home… and a nice treat at that…”
She nodded vigorously with a second mouthful of starch whilst her eyes darted about in hopes that no one would see her culpability in savouring something so lovely as a croissant outside the confines of a dining room. I was surprised to see that she seemed less inclined to disregard my offer than to offend her own culture. But it was really a matter of choosing which cultural value she would dismiss, as it’s an offense in Africa to decline something that someone has placed before you to consume. I, thus, smiled a weak smile as I gingerly tore a small corner of my own croissant. Oh how I longed to enjoy that lovely buttery goodness! But I suddenly lost my appetite. I returned the croissant to its bag after just one bite.
Jeanette’s eyes met mine with surprise as I rendered my pastry bag-wards. “You finish?” she mumbled, masticating her last bite. “Yes. I don’t feel much like eating now…” My voice trailed off. “So much for snacking,” I thought.
We promptly moved on from the supermarket. Thankfully, so did Jeanette’s attention to my cultural missteps. On our way back to the taxi park, I took after my escort, darting from curbside to traffic-bound in the street, dodging people and mounted bicycles. Jeanette was clearly far more adept at navigating the ‘hazards’ of foot-traffic, though; before I knew it, my hand was in hers as she forcibly pulled me from the probable path of a moto-taxi who clipped down the hill towards my back. “Sorry!” she said, (as so many Rwandans say when they don’t know what else to exclaim in a “whoops” sort of circumstance.) Pedestrian crisis averted, I felt fully safe to continue on my own. “That’s ok,” I smiled. “Thanks!” I said, loosening my grip of her hand.
Wait… I just loosened my grip of her hand; but her hand still held mine as she stepped forward, grinning. I found my gait forced to follow hers. At that point, I knew I couldn’t let go. (To do so would probably offend the gesture of friendship.) And so I pondered cultural lesson # 3: holding hands. I had heard about this one, but wondered at my own ‘luck’ to experience it ‘first-hand’. Although I had already witnessed countless men (and fewer women) holding hands with one another, I seldom considered a personal reaction to this cultural curiosity. Yet there I was, walking hand-in-hand with another woman. Weird, but affirming in the strangest sense.
As “umuzungu,” as a foreigner, I was honored to be awarded an opportunity to align my awkward, ‘outsider’ behaviors with native values—especially after having demonstrated such cultural naivety only moments prior! I suddenly felt, alternatively, like an insider, even if only for a moment. I thanked God for the grace to swallow my pride and revel in the blessing of this gesture—this non-verbal affirmation.
Affirmation. Hm. It felt good to be affirmed. “Maybe they don’t see what I see,” I thought. Maybe they see ‘potential’ inscribed into my skin, while I only see ‘different’. Maybe they apply ‘grace’ to the situations in which I’m inclined most to exact ‘[self]-judgment’. Maybe Rwandans have a thing or two to teach me.
“Thanks for coming into town with me,” I said to Jeanette abruptly.
“No problem,” she replied.
We walked on in silence. Holding hands. Smiling. Her black fingers cradled my white ones. Her African tenderness reconciled my American severity, even if only for the day.