Every so often in Rwanda there are moments that completely bowl me over emotionally. Usually they are simple exchanges that, for one reason or another, make a lasting impression.
A few weeks ago I boarded a bus headed for Kigali, as I usually do on Fridays. I made my way to the front of the bus and sat down next to an elderly woman adorned, as Rwandan women often are, in brightly colored fabric. She smiled widely and told me (through a Rwandan friend and interpreter) how happy she was to share her seat with me. I smiled back and offered my hand in greeting. We rode in silence for a time, careening on the edge of out-of-control along the hills of the now familiar NR3.
Again, she spoke to my friend but looked at me. “She says she wishes she had more time with us,” my friend relayed, “so we could teach her how to write her name.”
She gazed at me, a serene look of resignation on her face, and I didn’t know how to respond. It was an honest desire, expressed with no ill will or expectation. But it stopped me in my mental tracks. I was still thinking of what she said as the bus slowed to a stop soon after. She gave me one last smile and was gone.
I could carry on and on about seemingly minor conversations that reveal the simple power of information, of education, of things that I often fall into the habit of taking for granted. And perhaps someday I will write about the mother who is better able to care for her children since she learned when and how to wash their hands, or the HIV+ 14-month-old whose young mother is unwilling or unable to access treatment for both herself and her tiny child.
I savor these simple exchanges, these human moments that leave me feeling hopeless, incredibly lucky, and strangely optimistic for the future all at once. Moments like these help me gain perspective, allowing me to view my life through a slightly different lens. They remind me that we all carry a common humanity within us, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Ultimately, they are why I travel in the first place.
Last Thursday, Eliza, Lilian, and I hopped on a bus in Kigali and emerged—10 hours later and slightly worse for wear—in Kampala, Uganda.
Kampala is the capital of Uganda and its largest city. Compared to Kigali, Kampala is big, bustling, dirty, and somewhat over-stimulating. After arriving at 4:00 in the morning, we slept for a few hours before venturing out to explore the city. Lilian grew up in Uganda and used to live in Kampala, so she acted as our de facto tour guide for the weekend.
We spent Friday afternoon walking around the city, which included a considerable amount of café hopping to avoid the rain. On Friday night, we ventured to a town about an hour matatu (public mini-bus) ride away from the city for a dinner with Noerine Kaleeba arranged by a Global Health Corps fellow. Noerine is a jovial Ugandan woman who welcomed us into her home with open arms and local brews. Noreine, who lost her husband to AIDS, founded The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) in 1987, one of the first organized community responses to AIDS in Africa. That night, more than a dozen of us sat around a single table sharing pumpkin soup and greens, as the conversation wove its way from the character of Ugandan society to the morality of development work. It was a memorable evening, one that I will be able to draw inspiration from for the remainder of my time here.
The weekend’s main event was on Saturday: a soccer game (or should I say, a football match) between Uganda and Zambia. And it wasn’t just any game—it was a qualifying match for the 2013 Cup of Nations. Given the importance of the game, we decided to get to the stadium early. Six hours early. Our matatu full of muzugus (most of whom were GHC fellows working in Uganda) arrived at Namboole Stadium on the outskirts of Kampala at 10:00am for a 4:00 o’clock game. Early enough to find good seats, that’s for sure. From the minute we stepped off the bus until the very end of the game it was a constant barrage of noise, an eardrum-killing combo of vuvuzelas, handheld horns, crowd noise, and hip-hop music played over the PA system. If excitement could be measured in decibels, it was perhaps the most excited place I’ve ever been. And somehow the excitement continued to grow until the very last penalty kick… at which point the entire venue deflated like an angry balloon. Because Uganda lost. It was a tall order to begin with—Uganda, the underdog, had to win by a two-goal differential to advance. That fact, however, did very little (read: nothing) to ease the pain of defeat for the Ugandans. We joined the wave of dejection emptying the stands to begin the trek back to the city, our plans for a night on the town dashed by the outcome of the game (and further spoiled by the pouring rain).
On Sunday we had a late and leisurely brunch at a self-described "gallery café lounge" called MishMash, followed by ice cream, followed by a trip to a tiny store chock full of pirated DVDs. We spent the evening hanging out and even enjoyed a home cooked meal courtesy of our hosts for the weekend, Sivan and Devy (GHC fellows, of course). We hopped on a 9:00 o’clock “luxury coach” and arrived back in Kigali just as the sun began to rise over the city’s endless hills, quietly ushering in a new week.
If I were remotely poetically inclined, what would follow would be a lengthy and heartfelt ode to my bicycle, Costello. But I’m not, so I’ll spare you the attempt.
I miss my bike more than anything else about life in the U.S. Now, before you rebuke me for missing an inanimate object more than I miss my friends and family, allow me to explain. Modern technologies make it easy to keep in regular contact with people, even if they are thousands of miles and a few continents away. I can maintain an active relationship with the people that I love; my bike I had to quit cold turkey (never mind that it’s only a temporary cessation).
You see, I developed quite an attachment over the past six months. Even I am surprised at how quickly I transitioned from someone who had hardly ridden a bike since the training wheels came off to someone who is borderline fanatical—willing, able, and even eager to spend 6-8 hours a day in the saddle. Of course, this change was spurred on by my participation in the Ride Against AIDS this summer. After the Ride ended in late August, I kept riding—home from Boston to complete my cross-country trip, on group rides with my bike shop, along the narrow shoulders of late-summer back roads in NH. I rode nearly every day until I shipped off to Rwanda.
I suppose I miss it so much because it was such an abrupt change. To go from the utter freedom of constant motion that accompanies life on two wheels to a more grounded and stationary existence is quite a shock to the system. I rarely feel as clear-headed and in the moment as when I’m riding a bicycle. I miss riding for the sake of riding, nothing more.
Which brings me to an interesting point. Although I see what probably amounts to hundreds of bicycles here every day, even in the tiny town where I live, I rarely see anyone riding for fun. (I’ve also never seen a woman riding a bike, but that’s another matter entirely.) Bicycles seem to always serve a specific purpose, whether it is to bring children to school, to transport jerry cans of water and other goods, or to commute to and from the next town. They are a practical necessity more than anything else, a far cry from the luxury that they usually are in the U.S.
I recognize that I’m lucky to view riding a bike as a welcome diversion from daily responsibility rather than essential component of it. It’s the seeming lack of purpose that I love. It’s like exploring a place without an agenda; you can’t quite predict what the end result will be, but each time it's something undeniably different.
I might sound like a nut. I just miss my bike.
The Rwinkwavu Hospital is located 8 kilometers off the main road, just over an hour’s drive from Kirehe. For the full 8k I bounced and bobbled like the hula girl on the dash, thankful that I hadn’t eaten a big breakfast.
After a busy weekend in Kigali and a day spent working in Kirehe, I was excited to visit Rwinkwavu. Located in the Kirehe’s neighboring Kayonza district, Rwinkwavu serves as Partners in Health’s “home base” in Rwanda, if you will. PIH began operations there in 2005, upon invitation from the Rwandan government to work in districts where the health systems needed strengthening. In the Kayonza district, PIH currently supports the 110-bed Rwinkwavu Hospital and 8 health centers.
You may be wondering why I ended up in Rwinkwavu today (aside from my desire to see as much of the country as possible, of course). Although I had no obligations to fulfill there, my co-workers had a meeting with the Deputy Country Director of PIH in Rwanda this morning, and I used it as an excuse to tag along, take some photos, and meet some of the staff. I spent most of the day researching—I’m on a never-ending quest to learn as much about this country as possible—and writing in a lovely open-air pavilion with beautiful views of the surrounding hills.
Compared to the PIH site in Kirehe, which is located along a busy main road, Rwinkwavu felt like a different world, one that is detached from the hustle and bustle of daily life not dependent upon it. Rolling up the windows to fend off the mighty dust and swerving to and fro to avoid the craters in the road is a small price to pay for the site (and sight) that awaits just 8 kilometers from the highway.
My first week in Rwanda was full of first impressions--from the first impression that I inevitably made on the PIH staff by dozing through the all-staff meeting (it was jetlag!) to my first impressions of Kirehe and life in a new country.
I ventured upcountry to Kirehe, as they say, for the first time last Tuesday. The drive was nearly three hours, and I was greeted by the typical daily power outage (which naturally happens just after sundown) as I settled into my new room in the FACE AIDS house. I share the house with Eliza and Lilian, and Bosco and Theo live just across the small courtyard. The house is nice: large and made of concrete, with four bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and living room. There is no running water, so there are large buckets throughout the house filled with water for a variety of purposes (flushing the toilet, bathing, drinking, squirt gun fights, etc.). Water must be boiled, cooled, and filtered before it is drinkable and bathing is done with a bucket, but the lack of running water isn’t really an inconvenience. I’m certainly wasting a heck of a lot less water here than I do at home in the U.S.
The town mirrors the house in its simple lack of extravagance. All the basic amenities are available, and there’s even a cell tower near the soccer field by our house. The town stretches along the paved main road, a string of unmarked concrete buildings housing families, a few shops, and even a restaurant or two. By all accounts, there’s just not much here. Regardless, the road is teeming with people, day and night. Men on bicycles laden with water jugs and bunches of bananas compete with moto taxis for the right-of-way, weaving through pedestrians while trying to avoid the occasional cargo truck or minibus that zips along the road. It is a sight to behold.
And so am I, apparently. I draw curious looks and blatant stares every time I walk through town or run in the village behind the house. Every child in the village seems to have particularly fine-tuned muzungu radar; I swear they all see me coming from a mile away and never hesitate to run along beside me for a few minutes, giggling and conversing in simple Kinyarwanda. I often wonder if the novelty of my appearance will ever wear off. I definitely won't ever blend in, but maybe someday I won't stand out quite as much as I do now.
My first impression of life in Kirehe? It is unfamiliar and exotic...and as the curious glances and excited shouts of the children constantly remind me, so am I.
*muzungu = white person
If you had asked me what I thought I’d be doing on my first night in Kigali, I can say with fair certainty that ‘salsa dancing’ would not have been my first (or fiftieth) response.
As it happened, on Thursday night I found myself at a bar called Pasadena, where the crowd was international but the beats were strictly Latin. It was nice to spend my first night in Kigali surrounded by friendly 20-somethings from all over the world.* I admit to being a reluctant dancer at best, especially since people often make the assumption that I dance well given my history as a figure skater. Unfortunately, I (and those that have witnessed the spectacle) can verify that that is 100% not true. I can, however, keep a beat and count to eight quite proficiently, which I credit to my short-lived career on Northeastern’s synchronized skating team. But I digress.
Despite my self-proclaimed lack of prowess on the dance floor, I joined in on the salsa lesson and took a few spins around the dance floor. You only have one first night in Kigali, after all.
*Side note: Many of the patrons were in Rwanda as Global Health Corps fellows. The Global Health Corps is an organization that provides yearlong fellowships in the United States and several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Eliza and Lilian, both of the Program Managers at FACE AIDS here in Rwanda are also GHC fellows.
Fifty-five hours after leaving New Hampshire, I found myself alone, crying in a tiny airport bathroom in Kigali, Rwanda at nearly 1:00am. Thankfully, it only took about thirty seconds and one look in the mirror for me to snap out of it. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. As I recount the past couple of days, perhaps you’ll appreciate the necessity for a temporary emotional breakdown at that particular moment.
I left NH in a hurry. This should come as no surprise to those who know me. As much as I dislike rushing, it’s something I do quite often. Perpetually late, chronically time-challenged, however you put it, it’s a rare occasion (and cause for celebration) when I am early. So, naturally, my mom and I left the house slightly behind schedule. We picked up my dad and I rushed to gather all the necessary documents to obtain the work visa that I completely forgot I would need. Despite the scrambling, we made it to Boston in plenty of time, and were even able to have lunch before I departed. My first flight was just a short skip up to Montreal.
Montreal is where the fun began. Originally, I was scheduled to spend less than two hours in the airport in Montreal. I ended up there for seven, at least two of which were spent on the tarmac on a stationary plane. Due to a mechanical issue with plane number one, we were forced to deplane and wait an additional four hours in the terminal. My chances of catching my connecting flight to Kigali were dashed as soon as the first plane was sent to the hangar, and we departed for Brussels at 1:30am.
Upon arrival in Brussels, I was informed that I would be unable to get on a flight to Rwanda until the following day and that it would no longer be a non-stop flight; a change of airlines and a layover in Istanbul were now required. Thankfully I didn’t have to spend the night in the airport; Air Canada provided me with vouchers for a taxi to and from a hotel as well as a room in the hotel with meals included. The hotel was in Antwerp, which is about 50 kilometers from Brussels. So it was essentially a free mini-vacation. I tried to take advantage of the unexpected break from traveling and took time to explore the city, eat a fancy meal, and take what was likely one of my last hot showers for the next few months. It was a strange experience to find myself unexpectedly alone in a foreign city, but I enjoyed myself.
I should probably note that by the time I arrived in Belgium, my baggage was already MIA. I was informed that it would be re-routed along with me the following day, but I had my doubts.
From Brussels it was one long day of travel to get to Kigali. Ten hours of flying sandwiched a few hours spent sleeping in the airport in Istanbul. When I finally arrived in Kigali it was 12:30am, and I had lost all sense of time and place. I had already resigned myself to the fact that my duffel bag would probably not arrive with me, but when that resignation became a reality, I was slightly distraught. And that’s when I found myself alone in the bathroom with nothing but my carry-on and my emotions. That’s also when I decided that I’m not the type of person who cries alone in bathrooms, regardless of how easy it seems to justify my emotions at the time. So I walked out of the bathroom, filed a report with the lovely woman in the lost and found office, and got the hell out of the airport.
And now I’m in Kigali and life is good. My bag is still lost in the infinite abyss, and it will be a pleasant surprise if I ever see it again. And so begins three and a half months of life in the same outfit.