One Friday after work, I took a bus from Kigali till I reached a sleepy village called Gahini beside a lake that, by late afternoon, shone like mercury. Paula , a VSO teacher on a 3 year placement, had invited some of us volunteers for a weekend break and raring to see the countryside I couldn’t refuse.
Rural Rwanda was a stunning rolling patchwork quilt of hills, laid down with fields stitched together with ploughed furrows of spilt cocoa. Down every deep ravine, round bends lined with eucalyptus and bamboo was a sight for the eyes and the iphone.
Paula had a spacious bungalow with a verandah, surrounded by gardens, where she grew vegetables and kept naughty boisterous chickens and a possessive cockerel. She was the only foreigner in the village; rural life gave her a complete immersion in to the Rwandan experience, miles away from ATMs, MTV, shops and wide boulevards of the city. There was just the stars at night over the rippling lake to provide her with a unique son et lumiere. Life was slow there, able to be absorbed mindfully, with relish, to inhale the experience like a bewitching incense of earth and chlorophyll to understand what a special place this was. Paula seemed to enjoy every minute of village life.
<This post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa – this post is a standalone piece of narrative, but for context, the table of contents can be found here>
VSO paid us $5 a day (so our lives would not be out of place with those of the locals) and here in the countryside, it seemed like the $5 went a long way. Not just because prices were lower than in the capital, but also because there was so little to spend it on. There was a lakeside joint called Jambo Beach, part kiddies’ playground part semi-outdoor restaurant, that served an excellent fried tilapia. Then there was a local shop run by a lady that cast us suspicious looks as we entered, that sold everything on its wooden shelves that lined the wall, from UHT milk, eggs to waraji ( a local gin made from bananas, grain, casavas and sugar popular in East Africa). Quite why waraji was sold in small plastic packets, about the size of a saline drip, perplexed me. Even more curious was the sales blurbs on the packet: Appetising, healthy, chilling and no hangover. No hangover? But it was 42%.
We took a walk round the lake, and Paula seemed to know a lot of people. It’s a universal truth that when you have spent an hour or two walking in seclusion, the first person you see, you’ll nod to or smile at and perhaps have a chat. Try this in a major city and you’ll get a look of suspicion. It’s not that people from the countryside are more friendly (that would be dismissive of over half the world’s population that live in cities), no, it’s more that the pace of life is slower, there is time for chit-chat and a richness of dialogue eroded by the fast paced bustle of city living. In the country you become human again, not a commuting, wifi-addicted, caffeine-swilling, watch-gazing automaton. The essence of being yourself finds time, to come out of its shell, to bloom when it’s without the stress of needing to get somewhere or do something urgently.
It was like that as we walked the hills round Gahini, everyone we met had time on their hands, a smile on their face and a few French words. Nothing too intimate, a pleasant ca va, or bonjour. It was either that or Paula’s natural extroversion, her upbeat Irish cheer or the genuine affection she had engendered in the locals.
We passed the local school next to a magnificent flame tree, where she taught and she showed us the murals she had made with the children, and things she could rustle up with crepe paper, card, straws and glue.
Like children all across the continent, Rwandan children’s curiosity is easily piqued by passing foreigners or muzungu as they called us. It’s a genuine curiosity that comes with an flowing banter, simple friendships spurred on by the chance of a small gift or some coins with the utterance of the magic phrase, like open sesame, which in these parts is unlocked by the hopeful ‘donne moi cent francs s’il vous plait’.
‘Beeping’ and mobile phone culture
Rwandans love to chat and those who own mobile phones speak on them with extended conversations to their hearts’ content. (Phone etiquette is different here – I once attended a conference in Kigali where a man chairing a meeting answered his phone keeping 200 people waiting. I thought something serious was up but I later learned he was discussing his evening meal.)
Rwanda, it is said by a researcher at Microsoft, invented one form of mobile phone etiquette called beeping. This works by the caller hanging up after a single ring, leaving a missed call on the incoming handset. It’s a toll-free way of saying, many things. From the needy – ‘can you call me?’- to the sentimental – ‘I’m thinking of you,’- (but clearly not sentimental enough to be paying for the call).
Africa is all about conversations. Children who have just learned to walk, sit down and chat with their just-older siblings, as if they were discussing something deep and meaningful, like philosophy, in a way I have never children in the west do. Africans’ history, folktales and lore have been passed down by word of mouth for thousands of years. Specialised men called griots, and specialised women called griottes were trained to learn and pass on these memorised archives. Imagine that, a ten thousand year accumulation of data on a googolplex of gigabytes handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. No USB; no broadband; no hard disks required. The absence of writing in ancient African civilisation, paired with a strong oral tradition has perhaps fashioned the culture in to one of heightened engaged conversationalism.
In this way, via the griot and the system of hand-me-down by word-of-mouth history, where spoken stories round a campfire exude such an impression, rural people all across the African continent were able to learn about their forefathers. It is scarcely surprising therefore that mobile phones, talking, chatting and just plain shooting the breeze should be so cherished, brought through the generations in an ancient DNA.
The avoidance of amorous attention
Some of the female volunteers in my batch got frequently asked for their phone numbers in chance encounters with random Romeos on buses, on the streets or in shops. Some received up to 5 marriage proposals a month – even if some of these were in jest, that’s still a impressive achievement in the fine art of collecting life-changing propositions.
Some of them cultivated a great expertise in deflecting these advances with ready excuses like “Unfortunately I only have an English SIM card and it will cost you a thousand Rwandan francs per minute to call me.” (This clearly would not have deterred the excessive ‘beeper’.) Or: “Unfortunately in our culture we don’t give out phone numbers the first time we meet.”
We occupied the three seats at the back of the bus on the way home to Kigali. Paula had some meetings the next day so she joined us too.
A lad turned back to us and asked Paula: “How are you?”. He appeared keen to try out his English, nothing too ostentatious, just simple short three or four word sentences. Easy constructions, for fail-safe and direct communication. Another lad in front shouted back “what is your name?” There were more questions from random voices. “What is your email address?” I will visit you.” “What is your phone number?” Five words now.
“Gahini is nice.”
“Today is hot.”
“Rwanda is beautiful.”
We couldn’t disagree.
Already in 2008 English was making advances in the country and the government had ordered English to be taught in schools. Rwanda was the first French-speaking African country to change one of its official languages from French to English due to a bitter falling out. Today Rwanda is in the Commonwealth, boasts several cricket teams and English Premier League Football, not the French league, is what men and boys across this country follow. That’s why in some situations, awkward, inconvenient or whatever, people will grab the chance to practise that exotic language at the time, English.
The bus journey continued round bends, swerving around axel-breaker potholes. At a bus-stop in the middle of nowhere, a large lady resplendent in a green and red dress stood on her own. She boarded carefully, step by considered step, hips swaying side to side. She climbed on board stepping carefully around knees and feet, avoiding bolts and rivets on the chasis. She breathed heavily; her girth was so wide that she would get jammed between the seats and passengers would have to push her through. She took it all in good cheer, and she sat in the only free seat, catching her breath and mopping her brow.
The English conversationalists crafted their next words:
“She is fat,” said one voice.
“Yes she is,” agreed another.
They didn’t intend to be rude, only to show off their command of the language. Besides, in rural Rwanda telling someone that they are have fattened is a simple fact, and a sign of health.
The lad in the front row turned back and shouted, in a show of one-up-man-ship, “She is VERY fat.”
It was awkward; I wished the bus’s seats would swallow me so I could continue the journey clinging to the axel. I needn’t have cringed though. Few people on the bus could understand Engish.
Sometimes communication is not a good thing. Some things are better left unsaid.