Peter, my Rwandan housemate, is a man of many talents – he’s my gym training buddy, my security guard, a law student and a boxing champion for the Kigali Police First Team. I don’t really need a security guard, Kigali is the safest city I’ve ever lived in, but I enjoy his company especially at the start of our days.
This morning, at breakfast on the veranda, he demonstrated one further remarkable talent: an uncanny ability to tell the time just by seeing the position of the sun in the sky.
(This is part of a serialised blog called Letters from the Heart of Africa and a table of contents and background can be found here. This is a self-contained post but can be read as part of the series.
Rwanda is very close to the equator so at noon, he explained, the sun is always directly overhead. So you just have imagine 12 notches representing the 12 hours of daylight at the equator, in a semi-circle from the points of sunrise to sunset. One needs to allow for the fact that the shape of the sun’s movement in the day is a semi-oval, as opposed to a semi-circle, as the sun gains and loses rapid height just after dawn and just before dusk; at noon, its zenith, its path is flatter. We stood in the yard at breakfast holding mugs of tea squinting at the sky like a couple of morons, to test his ability. Peter, who had never owned a watch in his life, looked up at the position of the sun, triangulating it with a leaf of a backyard banana tree and the pole for the clothesline. He swayed his chin left and right, deep in thought, and then proclaimed: “7.15”. He was 2 minutes out – a remarkable feat nevertheless.
Peter seems keen to prove that in Africa everything is shared and, being aware of the incessant begging I’ve been encountering daily on the streets as a foreigner, he wanted to show me that some things in life could be done for free without any hope of a payback; he requested to wash and iron my clothes once a week – a magnanimous gesture, so I brought him a pile of office shirts to wash.
As he wouldn’t accept payment, we agreed that every Tuesday he should let me take him out on a “beers and brochettes” evening at a nearby bar called Chez Lando in Remera.
With its pool table and televised football, Chez Lando was little different to any bar, in any city, in any corner of the world, so he suggested we go somewhere more authentic, down some dark back-alleys till we came to a house with an open door at the top of two stone steps.
Some patrons were sitting on plastic chairs supping their bottles of beer in a silent semi-comatose stupor under a single light-bulb that made the shadows of their faces ghoulish on the back wall. The bar had no counter, no draught taps, no fridge and no beer posters.
In fact there was no evidence that it was actually a bar. It could have been someone’s front room. It probably was.
This homely bar had the slowest service south of the Sahara and after an hour our well-grilled brochettes and a fiery piri piri sauce arrived; on the drinks menu was Mutzig (the most popular beer of Rwanda touted on billboards as the “taste of success”). It’s best to pronounce Mutzig as Miitzing as the umlaut over the “u” makes it look like a double “i”. It is sold in 33cl and 65cl bottles with an alcohol content of 5.5%. Billed as a medium beer, it has a bright red and gold label with a jousting knight on a stallion and castle and lists hops, malt, water and CO2 in its ingredients.
Rwandan bar etiquette
There are certain etiquettes to follow in a Rwandan bar.:
When ordering a beer one needs to specify that it should be a cold beer for many Rwandans prefer their beer at served at room temperature.
If, when you tell the barman your order, he raises his eyebrows, it means “yes, that’s fine I will get you your order”. It is a minimal gesture of affirmation, subtler than a nod. The first time I saw the raised eyebrows affirmation, I interpreted it to be a look of surprise, or not understanding, so I repeated the order several times; he raised his eyebrows several times; I ended up with several drinks.
When asking where the bathroom is, instead of pointing with his finger the bar man may point with his chin. It is a curious gesture, as if he has tick or a tinge of discomfort in a tight collar and it requires a good eye to observe.
In the homely bar, imported drinks are expensive – a glass of wine is over £2 a glass for Rwanda has no vineyards and wines are freighted overland from South Africa. Local drinks are urwagwa (a type of banana wine) and waraji a clear liqueur made from distilled maize or even mango or pineapple, which is sold in innocent-looking clear plastic packets which state in bright red capitals:
“NO HANGOVERS, CHILLING, ORGANIC, AND GOOD FOR YOU.” And as an after-thought: “45%”.
The clear liquid in a transparent packet looks remarkably similar to a saline drip and the clear wording serves to aid medical personnel in avoiding a catastrophe of either drinking saline or administering an alcoholic beverage intravenously to a patient. I don’t know what is worse.
Rwandan beers are typically stronger than their European and American counterparts; an afterwork beer tastes more refreshing, more tingly on the tongue, for in Rwanda one tends to be in a continual state of sub-hydration, for Kigali is at altitude.
Peter and the confusion of soup
One morning in the yard I handed Peter a couple of packets of soup. I had brought 20 boxes of soup with me from London because at the last minute I realised that I was allowed double a normal baggage allowance as a VSO volunteer and soup seemed as good as anything to take. With each box containing 6 packets, I had 120 packets in all – a tad excessive I admit. Peter looked at the packets of soup inquisitively and I explained, as I rushed out locking the front door, that all he had to do was add hot water and stir.
When I came home from work, Peter knocked on the door. He had a perplexed look on his face. “The soap you gave me doesn’t work,” he said.
“I never gave you any soap,” I replied.
“You did. This morning. The two packets. Remember?” he said in his usual monotone.
“That was soup!”
“Soup? Qu’est-ce que c’est soup?
Thinking I had given him soap, Peter had poured two packets of soup in to a bucket of hot water and stirred it just like I had instructed. When he found no soapy foam, he added some more and when that didn’t foam he just assumed that British soap was so good that it didn’t need to froth. Then he added my shirts to the mix and left them there to soak for the whole day.
In the evening we both stared down at the bucket. It was a sorrowful sight: my shirts had achieved a tie-die marble-effect swilling about in a diluted soup of mushrooms, tomatoes, minestrone and peas which, by then, were juicily hydrated complete with floating croutons. “Oh merde,” Peter kept repeating.
I accepted partial blame for the mix up, or rather the mix.
It took at least three more washes to get the shirts close to their normal colour. Even now I fear in the warmest part of the day, an embarrassing whiff drifts off me.