Notes from Rwanda VIII
“Begin to write always before the impression of novelty has worn off from your mind, else you will be apt to think that the peculiarities which at first attracted you are not worth recording; yet these slight peculiarities are the very things that make the most vivid impression upon the reader. Think nothing too trifling to set down, so it be in the smallest degree characteristic. You will be surprised to find, on re-perusing your journal what an importance and graphic power these little peculiarities assume.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
As quickly as the rainy-season maids blanketed the land with coverings of watery comfort, the dry season has quick-dried the earth like so much beef jerky, light brown dust rising in torrents from our back tires to cover the bodies and blinding the eyes of children trying to chase down our vehicle. (I’m reading Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, to better explain an introduction like that).
When I worked at summer camp in the U.S., the week leading up to parent’s visiting day – always a stressful time for camp management and counselors alike – was spent madly cleaning the camp from top to bottom, bunk to bunk, lake to driveway, assuring as good of an impression as could be made in such a short time. Emphatic sweeping led to the inevitable particulate tornado rising into the air, filling our lungs and nostrils with a fine coating of dust and dirt which we had so meticulously spent the previous month collecting. This stretch of time at camp became affectionately known as “Black Boogers Week”, which is how things are beginning to feel during this dry season at my new camp surroundings.
The main thrust of the RTP programming in the next little while is something the development experts call “capacity building”, i.e. teaching the community to bait a line, tie on a lure, and cast it all into the lake of honest work instead of simply handing them a the fish of dependence. We have begun coach trainings in the camp for adults, teaching such basic information as risk management, group control, child development, and how to run games and entertain groups of children, from ages 5-18. I find myself very much enjoying the teaching aspect of things, being excited both by the information I am teaching and the generally positive reactions from the participants. It is amazing to see adults, normally somewhat reserved and serious, laugh heartily at themselves during a round of Simon Says (“No, for the last time, I didn’t invent the game myself”) or while trying out their skills at the Limbo. For many it seems like playing these games comes as a release, a way to expunge so much built up childhood energy that may have been repressed by past traumas and lying dormant in the dust of the camp.
Early in the workshops, I found myself asking one of our groups why we should care so much that children are given the chance to partake in sport and play programs. As per my teaching notes, I began:
“So we have three general hypotheses as to why sport and play are so important to children: the hypothesis of endorphins, that hormones released during exercise give a sense of well-being, can relieve stress, and minimize pain; the hypothesis of distraction, whereby play can offer a diversion from the more negative aspects of life; and the hypothesis of social interaction, where children are given the chance to have meaningful interaction with both adults (teachers, coaches, parents, etc.) and their peers. Combined, these all lead to a quality we call resilience. Who can tell me what resilience means?”
My question was met with a combination of blank stares, busy doodling, and one participant who seemed so transfixed by the dust on his shoes that he felt it appropriate to give them the utmost concentration.
How to illustrate?
“Think of a house, or the building we’re in now,” I explained, and pushed a hand against the wall. “The walls are made of hard mud, dried so as to withstand wind, sun, and rain. They hold firm in any weather.”
“So resilience means strength, the ability to withstand pressure?” someone proposed.
“Yes, it can, but not exactly. Now think of a a reed (I stumbled, searching for the word in French), those plants growing on the edge of lakes. They are not hard and strong like mud or cement. Yet each will easily withstand the sun, wind, and rain by bending with the elements, then bending back. That is also resilience.”
What I realized afterwards is that it is actually some of both. Resilience, as we discovered as a class, is our ability to adapt, adjust, and react efficiently to a changing world – it is the set of skills that allow us to withstand some assaults, to be flexible with others, at times to stand like a house, and at others to bend like a reed, and yet to always bounce back, sometimes a bit changed, though with the same, or a heightened, sense of self. It is what we gain from travel, from school, from meeting and talking with people, and what I hope to take away with me when I leave Rwanda.
On the home front, our house, which has quickly become known as the RTP Guesthouse for our revolving-door policy of hosting anyone who happens to be in town for the weekend, has a new tenant. Lesley, a Master’s Student from Columbia University in New York, is in the midst of partaking in that most American of college rituals, the unpaid internship, and is doing it with the UNHCR in Kibuye for the months of June and July. As with our time staying at Marie’s place earlier in the summer, I’m finding that having a third person in the house, especially someone who experiences the world much like I do, is a welcome respite from the intensity of a house made of two. We have already had a number of intellect-tickling discussions concerning politics, religion, relationships, and whatever else happens to come up, as once again I find that the conniving hand of fate has dealt has me placed among, and relating much better, to women.
This week I found myself thanking my parents for two basic skills taught to me as a child and teenager. First and foremost, my semi-fluency in a second language, a skill which came about through a few – sometimes trying – years attending French school in Toronto. I now have the chance to work and live in a francophone country, expanding my mind, my world-view, and my vocabulary as I do so.
Second was learning how to drive a standard.
One of our main obstacles in working in the camp had been transport: we were dependent on the ever-tardy rides provided by the UNHCR vehicles stationed in Kibuye, where every morning was a guessing game as to when the car might leave, and every afternoon included the worry of being forgotten up at the camp. This will soon change, however, thanks to a very friendly man named Suzuki.
UNHCR was nice enough to loan us a car of our own, something called a Suzuki Samurai 4X4, which interestingly enough is about the same size as a real-life samurai, if he were to take his armour off and spend a few hours in the sauna. Maybe easiest to imagine a regular white SUV, a Nissan LandCruiser for example, placed in the dryer and forgotten in the spin cycle overnight. The result is our little car-ito, a Hot-Wheels sized golf-cart of a vehicle, a ride fit for going on safari with Mr. Bean as your chauffeur and Mini-Me riding shotgun, complete with two front seats, two pseudo-back seats, and no trunk space. Yes, people laugh at it. Heck, even I find myself laughing at it from time to time – trying to suppress any feelings of “SUV-envy” that might bubble up from deep inside while perusing the real SUVs – though it will hopefully succeed in getting us from A to B, or in our case K to K (Kibuye to Kiziba), and back.
Is it not telling that all of the NGO cars, including ours, are white?
Black, at least at is applies to people, is an unbelievable misnomer. People in Rwanda, as I’m sure in many places in Africa, are all shades of brown, from light cappucino, most likely from a little mzungu genetic cream in their DNA coffee, to a darkness, especially on the darkest skin when drenched in sweat, approaching polished ebony. Noses wide and nostrils flared, underlined by bright white teeth and pink gums - made all the more distinct against the darkness of the complexion - and hairless skin often so perfectly smooth that I can’t help but stare.
Being immersed in this richness of skin tones, I am sometimes struck by a very vivid sense of my own ugliness. It is not ugliness born of the “Oh my G-d, this dress makes my butt look big, I can’t go to the prom looking like this” self-consciousness, which has thankfully been discarded in the rubbish bin of adolescence; it is more an aesthetic ugliness, an eyesore, the kind you might feel if you were to happen upon a MacDonald’s in the middle of the rainforest; like a black fly in your chardonnay.
In contrast to Rwandans, I have been fashioned from an entirely different mold: a long, angular face, offset by a pointed, aquiline schnoz, with the sickly pink or peachy yellow skin that is associated with illness here. I am covered in ever-increasing quantities of a fine layer of hair, and perhaps most importantly, can’t carry near-baldness like almost every other man here. I am prone to changing colour in the sun (usually unevenly, given little time at the beach), or with exercise, or embarassment, jealousy, rage, etc. Yet another term – “coloured” – that has apparently been turned on its head.
By being that single spot of red wine on a new blouse, I have found myself being knocked near-speechless at times, lost in the depths of the faces I’ve seen - bright-eyed, inquisitive children; mzes (old men), whose withered faces have been dragged down and massaged into wrinkles by the tireless sculptor’s hands of time; beautiful dark cocoa-skinned women, impossible braids planted along their heads like rows of sorghum sprouts - realizing that to be surrounded in differentness like this means necessarily to adjust one’s sense of beauty, as if to focus my eyes through the looking-glass of my own perception for the first time onto a new set of features. Characteristics that I once could have described as good-looking about myself now pale, no pun intended, amidst the dark, striking, wonderfully varied characteristics of the people I meet.
Guillermo, the head of UNHCR Kibuye, quipped at one point that the word “wait” actually stands for “West African Internal Time”. We have slowly (ahem) been discovering the same of our current East African surroundings, and are left to ponder if it might endemic to the continent as a whole.
I have continued reading steadily, devouring a handful of books, both fiction and non-fiction, based in and around Africa. One of the better ones thus far is The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński, a polish journalist who recounts his experiences of visits to Africa between 1957-1997. Though I felt that he generalized about all Africans a bit too liberally, my experience with buses and meetings here in Rwanda so far can be summed up in the following mind-expanding passage from the book, which should ring true to anyone who has visited Africa in the past:
“We climb on to the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn’t know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, “When will the bus leave?”
“What do you mean, when?” the astonished driver will reply. “It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up.”
The Europeans and the Africans have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. According to Newton, time is absolute. “Absolute, true, mathematical time of itself and from its own nature, it flows equably and without relation to anything external.” The European feels himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours. He moves within the rigors of time and cannot exist outside them. They impose upon him their requirements and quotas. An unresolvable conflict exists between man and time, one that always ends with man’s defeat – time annihilates him.
Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of the gods and ancestors.) Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being.)
Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistnece, if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.
The absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview.
In practical terms, this mean that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when people come.”
At a recent coach training, I was surprisingly able to make it to the camp and set up a room by the scheduled time (10:00 am), despite UNHCR’s best efforts to slow me down. I was elated to think that I could for once begin a lesson on time, as our coaches had become accustomed to see us arriving late, having to switch rooms, etc., and was looking forward to teaching the lesson that I had come up with, which included an even amount of theory, practice, and activities to keep the energy level high and the class interested.
So I sat, at 10:00, and waited. At 10:30, one participant, Pablo, showed up, waited for 15 minutes, then went out to find the others. I never saw him again that day.
At 11:00, two other people showed up who explained to me that the others had to attend to house repairs – i.e. scooping up mud to plaster the sides of the house – and would come soon. What had begun as a small bit of anger and a large amount of frustration on my part slowly subsided, as I remembered the above-quoted passage. I relaxed. I pulled out my novel and started reading, thinking that I could still give the same lesson, be it at 10:00 am, noon, or later that afternoon. After all, what was I there for if not to teach?
And so it is with many meetings thus far, that despite having a scheduled time, things will not get going until everyone shows up, which can take hours. It is a refreshingly human-centered approach, a reminder of why we had the meeting in the first place: to gather people together to discuss what needs to be done, what has been accomplished already, what can be improved; a chance to teach and to learn. The conflict occurs, of course, when you are working in a country relying on the African view of time, though working for an organization dependent on the funding of European (and North American) NGOs and governments, thus requiring reporting and results consistent with the European view of time. As another RTP coach put it: “The stress comes because everything takes longer, but you still have to do the same amount of work to get done.”
Steph spent the first two weeks of June on vacation, and I felt to some small extent like an Atlasian weight had been lifted from my shoulders, finally left with the freedom to made decisions on the fly, to do things my way. These two weeks really made me realize that in fact there is a “my way”, a way that I work best. The realization comes along with another one, which is simply that I am perhaps more African than would be thought of me upon first glance.
I walk, for instance, almost everywhere I can. Those who knew me in high school and university can attest to the fact that I have a tendency to carry large, heavy objects home on my head. And I take things slow.
In keeping with the African view of time described above, I have discovered that the Way I work in the field, when I am happiest and most efficient, is when I leave enough time to observe what is going on in front of me, to chat with people who have something to discuss, to accept offers to sit down and have a drink in someone’s house. Whereas making a list of all the things that need doing on a daily basis has its uses, and is indeed a good place to start each day, leaving room for such human-centered tangents is the only real way to understand the quotidian goings-on of a community, those which exist outside of reports, ID cards, and food distribution.
My two weeks alone made me realize that Steph and I indeed approach our work very differently, where she is usually planning what must be done next, to get-there-complete-our-tasks-head-back-down-and-write-the-report, I prefer to take things as they come, to spend as much time as I can in the camp, and in so doing get to know the people on as one to one a basis as possible considering the immensity of the community. It is why much of the field office in Kibuye is so seemingly out of touch with what is actually happening in the camp, and why they have asked to see our reports as soon as they are finalized.
More Body Language
Every custom has its origin, and the fun part is finding out what they are.
Being the somewhat 90s kind of guy that I am, I have tried to keep up to date with the customs our society thrusts upon us, at least as far as they involve general politeness and chivalry. I was told once that men should walk nearer to the curb when carousing with a woman, so as to absorb the onslaught of any mud-flinging cars or, during some other long-forgotten time, carriages coming down the road. I have also heard the complete opposite: that men should walk on the side nearest the houses lining the street, as the danger at one point involved the unpleasant discarding of chamberpot refuse out of windows, occasionally onto unsuspecting passerby. Apart from making it an extremely messy and confusing thing to be a man, most customs all have some ancient and archaic, yet at one time practical, ontology.
Conversations with Rwandans have revealed that many of the customs I have come across, some of which I have described previously, are distantly related to the times of the kings, and of the need to ensure one’s own safety and engender the trust of others. The formal handshake, for example, where one appears to be offering up one’s forearm, was originally meant show that you were not concealing any weapons. Similarly, the greeting for those you pass on the street, which I have come to use quite frequently, is a matter of holding both hands up in front of you, thumbs towards the middle and palms facing outward as if about to catch a basketball, presumably also as a show of peaceful intentions.
Maybe most interesting is the fact that in a restaurant or bar, you will never receive your bottle opened before it gets to the table. This serves a modern practical purpose – you can then check to see if it has been properly chilled before it is opened (you have the choice between cold (ikonje) and warm drinks), though has a deeper more ancient meaning as well: to ensure that your server has not previously poisoned your beverage. This tradition is so ingrained in the local psyche that an attempt to introduce twist-off beer bottles in bars was met with disdain and revulsion – everyone thought that any bottle so easily opened must have not been sealed properly, and should be returned. The twist-offs were a complete failure.
For those interested in seeing where it is that I live – truer to life, not just through the words and pictures found in my correspondence or in the pages of books – there is a film that was made a couple of years ago called 100 Days, filmed in and around Kibuye, and telling the story of the genocide from a semi-fictional perspective. I have seen parts of it, and must say it is quite amateurish, so bad that it is at point hard to sit through, though it will give an good idea of my surroundings these past few months. It may be possible to find in small, independent movie stores, or in a shop selling African music and movies.
Steph has also uploaded some new pictures onto the website, including a few of our new house, a look a International Refugee Day (which took place on June 20th), and a recent visit to the rainforest in Nyungwe. Have a look at:
And finally, for those following the “what the future holds for Simon” soap opera, I have been accepted into a Master’s program in Geography at McGill,
which will start this coming September, as soon as my contract with RTP is finished. Though I’ll be sorry to leave Kibuye, both because it is in fact
such a beautiful place and because I won’t get to see many of the fruits of my labour here at the camp, I am certainly looking forward to being back in the
social and intellectual hot-spot that is the life of a university student, and to being in my most favourite of cities to date, Montreal.