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?