Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Moving Day

So, sorry folks for the long delay since my latest update. Last Thursday was moving day – in which two other ex-pats and I moved from the guesthouse in which we were temporarily staying to the home where we will live this year. The couple of days leading up to the move were very full, and in the days since the move internet access has not exactly been forthcoming. Neither has hot water actually. Or any water sometimes. But that’s not the point.

I would like to share with you about moving day. We worked a half day on Thursday and then drove to say goodbye to the family we had been living with. We picked up our stuff in two borrowed vehicles (one of which broke down twice in the 5 mile ride to our new place). Here are Diana and Iranzi – who will never be caught without his prized umbrella – and I, saying goodbye in the front seat of the ill-fated truck:

After we unloaded our items, it was time to go pick up Sylvan and his bride Christine, the Rwandese couple who will be living with us in the guesthouse on our property. This is Sylvan and Christine, standing in our front yard, on the second day we met them – they were coming back from church in their Sunday finest. [In fact, they are so devoted to their church that the first day we met them they asked us to come see it. So we did, cramming in a mutatu (a minibus folks take all over Kigali, packed in like an African clown car – old men and kids and mothers with babies strapped to their backs seven across). The mutatu experience is so outrageous it is worthy of a separate post, and will get one.]

Sylvan and Christine:

Sylvan will be our fulltime night guard, and Christine will help us by going to the market, washing our clothes and generally keeping us from starving. [By way of background, I should mention that in Kigali, every home and business has a high, bolted (usually metal) gate through which people and vehicles must go in order to enter the property (called a “compound” here – as in “I will meet you right outside your compound to walk to the market” or “there are 14 children waiting outside your compound to see you three muzungus [white folks] walk to work” -- you know, whatever the case may be). Each compound is enclosed with a high (usually stone) fence topped with either barbed wire or shards of sharp glass. (Our house has the glass – it’s actually very pretty; the bright sun pops off and through the tiny mountain range of colored glass topping our walls and makes me smile. It’s funny to me how something intended to be so threatening and fearsome can actually be quite beautiful).]

Every home and business also has a guard on duty 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. Guard is actually kind of a misnomer because the role can be served by even a housekeeper or gardener, but the point is that someone must be at the house at all times, as a deterrent to thieves. They also open the gate when people come home. I should also note with respect to the perceived (for me critically necessary) need for house helpers here, bear in mind that there is no washing machine and no dishwasher and no hot water (or sometimes any water) in the kitchen and no vacuums and no plastic bags and no grocery store and no milk that doesn’t have to be twice boiled or water that doesn’t have to be filtered before you drink it and no lawnmower (they use machetes to cut the grass) and no anything that makes general life and house maintenance feel even a little doable on your own. Forget going to the market yourself, because as a muzungu, you will pay at least five times the going rate.

Point being, we needed a guard, and praise God my housemates concurred that we needed a Christine. [And let’s just be clear, it’s not exactly easy breezy with one; if you ever wonder how long it takes to explain in English to a speaker of Kinyarwanda that you would like about a quarter pound of green beans, I can tell you. I can also tell you that what you will get is 3 kilos of dried kidney beans. If anyone has a recipe or ten for dried kidney beans, I eagerly await your comments.]

But I digress. Once we dropped off our stuff at the house, we went to pick up Sylvan and Christine in their village to bring them to our home to live. One truck was filled with their chairs and bed, and in the other truck was the rest of what they owned - all of it - two small bags (half of what I brought here for my 9 month stay), some plastic flowers, a couple of baskets and thermoses, and their charcoal "oven" they use to cook all of their food outside (since they don't have electricity or running water).

Sylvan and Christine had been living with her two sisters and one of the sister's babies in the village in the same tiny hut of a house. They have said it is a blessing to them to move to a secure,pretty and quiet place in our neighborhood, but it kind of broke my heart taking them out of their village. I was suddenly aware of myself as a white person driving up in our truck, as the whole village came out to inspect us, and scooping them away. The two sisters also came out, one with her three-month old son. We thought it was to say goodbye, but were quickly informed that the sisters would be travelling with us to see where the couple would now be living. This made complete sense to me – thinking of how heartbroken I would be, and was, to leave my sister’s home. It just would have been convenient to learn that detail before we came to retrieve them in our tiny pick up truck. Here are Christine and her sisters before we left the village:

Ten minutes later, the plastic flowers and thermoses and all eight of us, including the baby, were packed into that tiny pickup truck. As she was climbing in, his mother handed the baby to me, and off we went. Five of us across the back, me clinging as tightly as I could to the precious little boy on some of the bumpiest mud “roads” in Kigali. [No such thing as a car seat here.] And we travelled the 35 minutes home just exactly like so:

But the day got harder. It was constantly surrounding me, this contrast between Christine and Sylvan and me. They are newlyweds; will be married one year in August. He is a Mason by trade (finished primary school, which is the highest level of schooling many people finish here), and I would be surprised if Christine was even able to finish primary. They are working for us at what is considered a pretty good job, she working five days a week, and he to stay up five nights a week all night long, living in our cement floor guest house of three tiny rooms, for $200 a month (together - meaning this is what they make together in one month; meaning $2,400 a year).

That first night, Sylvan came into our house and said he was very tired from the move. And he asked if he could go to sleep. My heart ached and I was ashamed. Staring at a man who is working five nights all night for a month for $100 asking to be able to sleep for the night after moving his wife and belongings, I couldn't look him in the eyes really. We felt like we had to -- for our safety -- ask him to please stay up, knowing we wouldn't be willing to do it ourselves and would never expect anyone to ask us. Or maybe it was because he didn’t have a real choice, and we did. I don’t know, and it is a confusion and ache that is still with me.

So Sylvan took a two hour nap and woke up to guard our house all night – walking around outside with the mosquitoes and the night – while the three of us slept inside. It was difficult, and made me for the first time so very aware of the power dynamics here; working here for free and yet still so extraordinarily rich by comparison. I felt ashamed asking someone to do something I would never do for money I would never accept for it, and knowing he had no other choice, as both he and his wife have been out of work for a very long time.

I tried to sleep for a long time that night and not very well, hearing Sylvan walking around the house outside at least as tired as I was, thinking of his guest house with his new bride -- wondering if the new electricity is a blessing to them, but knowing that he knew that his house had no running water and no running toilet, no refrigerator and no stove, while the three muzungus sleeping inside each had all of it. And then I thought about what a sweet homr they had made of it, scrubbing the cement floors and placing each of their few items with such care, Christine displaying her five plastic flowers on the table in their tiny sitting room before preparing a potato meal for the sisters and Sylvan on their outside charcoal oven.

This image of their sweet, tidy house was very different than when we first saw the guest house. The week before, the empty guest house was being guarded by John Peter, a young Rwandese man who slept on the fifthly cement floor on a three 2 inch chair cushions -- the only 3 items in the house. Nothing else. While the main, beautiful house we now occupy sat empty. I thought about how John Peter had come back on moving day, to help us bring our stuff in, and to ask whether we might have a job for him. If while he was employed he was sleeping on a filthy cement floor on flimsy, dirty chair cushions, where was he sleeping tonight?

This is a confusing thing, being a rich person in a place like this. It is, everyday, a heartbreak. It makes me feel ridiculous to accept praise for working for no money, knowing I will not be without anything except for my loved ones and my ridiculous salary and occasionally some hot water and the comforts of home.

My heart was little bit heavy on that moving day, after the village, and the sisters, and the wish for sleep, and the no choices but to work for what is offered. But I am grateful for our beautiful house, and this couple. I pray that I will allow them to teach me a lot.

I am also tremendously grateful that God provided a safe place for us to live. When one of one of our Rwandese colleagues came to visit the house with us, he concluded: "This is good house. Your neighbors are not ferocious." I figured that was good news. He also requested that we promptly host a proper rat-chasing party. Here, that is what they call a house-warming party, the name derived from the need to chase the rats out before you can make your house a home.

A lovely couple, a lot to learn, un-ferocious neighbors and rat-chasing friends. What more could a muzungu ask for?


  1. Emily here--

    I'm so glad you're posting again-- it is so good to hear your voice and to see your experience through your eyes. How exciting and overwhelming and exhausting this all must be. I'm thankful you've found your home and can begin settling into something approaching a routine. (1. wake up. 2. don't shower. 3. don't drink big hot coffee.)

    We miss you terribly here--


  2. It has been many years since I was in Zimbabwe and then S. Africa, however these same things ring true. You are either filthy rich or dirt poor, most of which are dirt poor. I was very uncomfortable with our house keeper making my bed every day, cooking meals, etc. But we formed a friendship, maybe more of a respect for one another although I grew to really appreciate her and she felt important taking care of me.

    I hope you will, in time, be able to settle into a relationship with Sylvan and Christine. I am certain you will learn a lot from them and in turn, they will from you as well.

    Glad you are back Sister.


  3. Doyle,

    Kling here. I've been trying to figure out how to respond to this post. First, I'm so happy to hear that you are doing well and getting relatively settled. Second, thanks for reminding us all of the amazing reality of the inequities that surround us. I remember my first months in the Delta being shocked by the lack of wealth; however, after my two years were done, I realized that while the Delta was impoverished in terms of monetary funds, it was one of the richest places I have ever been - the most generous, warm, spirited people; soil that could grow anything; and a simple beauty that could take one's breath away. I hope Rwanda proves to be rich in those terms as well.
    I'm also glad that your neighbors are not ferocious.xoxo.

  4. I have missed you friend. So wonderful to "hear" from you this morning. I am glad to hear that you are ferocious neighbor free! I can not begin to imagine the things going on in your heart and head, I do know that Christine and Sylvan are blessed to be employed by you my friend.

    Love love,

  5. So glad to hear from you Mandy and so glad to hear that everything is going well.

    Did you end up having a job for John Peter?

    I feel for all of them just reading your story. Can I send Sylvan and Christine a bed, pillows, blankets, something? Are they allowed to receive packages?

    Jennifer Meyers

  6. That you feel that small pang for Sylvan and Christine is all the difference.

    How we treat one another matters, so I hope your relationship continues to grow beautifully both as their employers, but more importantly as friends.

    It was great to hear from you!

    (LOL! Muzungu! That is the same word in Malawi)

  7. So good to hear from you again and that you are settling into life there. My thoughts echo many that have already been stated. I think you are blessed to have the opportunity to experience first hand the inequities and the humility that affords you. I think Christine and Sylvan are blessed to have jobs with you and their "own" place as newlyweds. I hope you all find joy and peace in the arrangement and that they learn as much from you as you will undoubtedly learn from them. More than anything, though, I sit here (in my cushy home) feeling envious of your experiences and wishing for the bravery to do something even fractionally as momentous as what you are doing. Stay safe!

  8. To share the perspective of one of my mother's dear friends who spent 30+ years as a missionary and teacher in Liberia, came back to the US for about 15 years and then returned to Liberia for the end of her life because the US just wasn't "home,"---
    Marilyn has made peace with having domestic employees because it is a way of sharing her own prosperity. She feels it would be irresponsible to NOT provide jobs for people when she has the means.
    You will learn a great deal from Christine and Sylvan-- and they will be blessed by having you and your housemates in their lives.

    Thank you for keeping us updated!

  9. Chimmy said it best - that you feel a pang . . . may your heart always be tender, and may you always see the people around you through those perspectacles.

    You are blessing them by providing them with employment, and this will be a source of support to their larger family group as well. And you muzungu will probably be a great source of wonderful stories for them to share with their families, with much laughter.

    So glad you're back posting again...

  10. What an amazing post, Amanda. I'm looking forward to reading more about Christine and Sylvan, and all the things the three of you learn from one another.

    Also, I'm with Jennifer M. -- can we send them stuff? Would that be appropriate/feasible?

  11. Hi. It's me. I missed reading your posts. I'm so glad to hear you're settled. Sort of.

    I thought hard about you last night and wished for your safety and happiness. I will add Sylvan and Christine to the list starting now.

    Please let me know how the rat-chasing party goes.

    One love.

  12. thank you for describing what you see and how you feel. it sounds hard, good and hard. love to you across the miles as you all learn from each other.

  13. Sister, an excerpt from the book I just finished, called The Help, which I'd like you to order to your Kindle yesterday.

    She shake her head, "I can't explain it. I got this feeling. That maybe things is happening the way they should."


    Minny kinda laugh...I poke her with my foot. But I try to understand where Minny's coming from. We done something brave and good here. And Minny, maybe she don't want to be deprived a any a the things that go along with being brave and good. Even the bad."

    I love you my brave and good Sister.

    Also, I've been looking everywhere for that damn headband.


  14. Good morning, Sweetie,
    After I read The Help I retrieved my favorite picture of Jessie and me, framed it, and placed it on my bedroom dresser. After reading your post this morning, I went to my bedroom and gently kissed Jessie's picture. As you know, Jessie was the woman who helped raise me and my brothers and sisters. Jessie loved me and I loved her wih all my heart.I still think of her all the time and miss her terribly. I still feel like I need her warm and protective hugs and her careful, wise, and loving guidance.
    Our families were very different. Our lives were very different. But Jessie is one of the greatest gifts of my life and I was one of hers. Understanding and believeing this is a powerful source of strength in my life.
    Even tho it sometimes doesn't make sense and sometimes doesn't seem fair, when one has a relationship like this, maybe the best we can do is live it, gently learn from one another, laugh together, treasure the moments, remember, and be grateful.I know you will be gentle and learn and laugh and treasure and remember all the special people who come into your life in your new home.

  15. Amanda,

    I watched a special on PBS the other night detailing the horrendous sexual abuse of young boys in Afghanistan. I believe the boys are referred to as the "bacha bareesh," beardless boys. I rarely watch t.v., but felt like something in the background as I picked up the toys after a loooong day. That's the channel that was on because we like to watch "Word Girl" in this casa! Sooo, long story longer, after only a few moments of hearing bits and pieces of the narrator, I was compelled to sit down. I watched the entire documentary in horror. It made my physically ill what is happening to those children. Of course, as a mother, I personalized it and thought what if that was my son?!!! Who is helping these babies? During the program, I started to think of you a lot.

    Just wanted to say thank you for being who you are and doing what you do. Go, Amanda, Go!

  16. Was going to make a comment but then read Tisha's. Nuff said.


  17. Doyle,
    So good to hear from you across the ocean. Read this earlier today and thought about you:
    "Rest-Love-Joy-Peace-Work, and the most powerful of these are Love and Joy."


  18. Might I add that my favorite quote out of the help is "For Two-Slice Hilly" LMAO

    LOVE THE HELP, absolutely love it. If I ever have another child and that child is a girl, I'm naming her Milly.

  19. Amazing, good, hard stuff! Thanks for sharing with us all of your adventures. I'm praying that your presence there makes tons of positive ripples everywhere!

  20. I am happy to see you posting. I am sure it is emotional in all directions to get settled. My parents lived in Kenya in the 1970s and had a gardener and a cook. I was very confused by that as a child, it sounded so fancy to have such help. My mother explained that employing as many of the local people as possible was a gift that they were happy and blessed to give, even if it took a lot of getting used to. Two barely 25 year olds having a cook and a gardener! Our family photo albums are full of photosof those two men. They were very dear and very loved.

  21. I'm speechless this morning. I read this a few days ago and I still can't find the right words to say about all of these feelings you are going through. I just think you're great. And that baby looks like I could eat him up with butter.
    I hope you won't beat yourself up so're doing good stuff, you're not over there prancing around like a queen. The contrast must be so hard to see though. I get antsy when I see people with signs asking for money at intersections, so I can't even grasp what you see each day.

    Oh...I agree about The Help. It's great.

  22. Sylvan and Christine! Many blessings upon your marriage! Many armfuls of gratitude for you and your hard work! You have many good wishes coming your way.

    Doyle, we watched Gorillas in the Mist the very day you wrote about it. GOD that one will rip your heart right out. While pulling it up on Netflix (it's on the watch instantly list for anyone who needs some armchair travel to Rwanda), I saw a review of it that said, "THIS MOVIE IS FOR MASOCHISTS." That was right on, although I suppose sometimes "masochism" can be mistaken for "willingly exposing oneself to the heartbreaking circumstances of life." Either way: RIP Digit.

    I know we have a LOT more important things to worry about (but this topic DOES impact the manner in which you will be attending to those very important things): what are you doing about coffee?? Did you line your suitcase with Folgers instant? (Please remind me to share with you about the morning my husband and I volleyed Folger's theme song rewrites over breakfast...there were some SNL-worthy takes.)

    love you big.


  23. Mandy, Mandy, Mandy...

    Not sure where to start. Read your words and then read the words of all the comments from the people who love you and are following you from afar like me...speechless just about describes it.

    First, The Help. Beautiful book, and I agree with your sister...order it yesterday and read it NOW. I couldn't put it down...taught me so much about the ins and outs of relationships between different people but how beautiful and precious they can be. Your mom's post touched me...thank her for sharing that.

    Sylvan and Christine, congrats on your marriage and please hug them for protecting, guarding and tending to you - our love and joy and friend. They will teach you so much and you every minute with them!

    Must have been wuite a ride in that packed car..sort of like when Karlos (with a K) packed us into his jeep/truck in Costa Rica and I was in the way back with Danger as we headed down to the shanty bar. Ahhhh - the good times we had!

    But that baby, that sweet sweet baby face and those cheeks! The sister bond...come on - you don't need to think twice about the love between 2 sisters - let alone 3!

    I love living vicariously through this blog and your stories. You are talented my dear. Truly gifted because it feels like I'm right beside you.

    Really wish I was...right there with you.

    Miss you tons, love you more.