Six weeks in to my volunteering placement in Rwanda I felt down. I had hit what psychologists call the ‘6th week blip’. The theory goes something like this: after 6 weeks of being in a new cultural environment you hit a wall. You’ve had enough. The initial joy of encountering a new place, wears off. Fascination has its limits. Novelty wears away. Tolerations, once bearable, become annoying.
(This is part of the serial blog post called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. Background to this series can be found here)
I had really tried my best getting used to not having a fridge. First world problems or what? This meant following a strict regime of knowing the use-by dates for food products. My rules were as follows:
- Tins – store well for years.
- Meat – eat on the same day.
- Spinach – dispose of when they they go limp.
- Milk – use the same day (or use powder milk).
- Bread – use till you see little green spots on it.
- Eggs – I found out about their limited shelf life the hard way. One night I got home late and hungry so made a noodle stir-fry. Once the noodles, beans and chicken pieces were sizzling away and nearly done I decided to add an egg. I cracked it on the side of the the frying pan, and as it landed a putrid smell of sulphur hit the membranes in my nostrils; a yoke, black like a squid’s ink bladder, fell in to the noodles, defiling them in to a dark sludge. I solved this with some research – I found out that eggs came from an organic egg production unit (called a ‘chicken’, we don’t have these in London) but decided instead to be more organised and eat eggs on the day that I bought them.
My list of annoyances were not exhaustive and could be surmised as follows:
- The lack of running water in the house.
- The lack of running water in the house and getting a water bill.
- Having to bring in two buckets of water every morning.
- Finding my razor in the bucket one morning and realising I had a mystery razor sharer.
- I hated to think who was using my razor?
- Worse, I hated to think where they were using my razor?
- Having my underpants stolen
- Having a radio that could find the World Service but the wrong one (German).
- Meetings that consistently started one hour late.
- Buses that left only when they were full.
- Motorbike taxis that left only when their petrol tanks were empty.
- Having a mattress that gave me back ache.
- The morning elbowing for a bus seat.
- Deep concerns that my project will fail and the results might last the lifespan of a mayfly.
- Being called mzungu all the time.
As an example, take the word “mzungu”. All over eastern and southern Africa, it means white person. It’s not derogatory and at first it brought a smile to my face whenever passers-by said it; it was cheeky and endearing and because I’m more beige-coloured than white, it made me laugh. But in the downside of the 6 week blip, it was just the type of comment to get on my nerves. It all depended on context. For example if used in a meaningful way, it was okay: “He is charging you a mzungu rate” advised a self appointed street-adviser in a bid to stop me being ripped off. Then there was the time on on the road back from Gisenyi on the DR Congo border – I braked in the middle of the road as an old cowherd nudged his cows across the road with a long stick. Seeing us in the car he shouted, “Hurry up, you’re keeping the mzungus waiting.” He was talking to his cows.
But someone might point at you and just say “mzungu”; it’s like pointing at a teapot and saying “teapot”; unless you’re 2 years old and proving your vocabulary to your parents, you’ve got ask yourself: what is the point of that?
But the sixth week changes to the seventh week; it gets better. The trough is ridden out; the graph rises once again. Anyway, I was wrong to dwell on the negative – there were so many reasons to be grateful: And perhaps mzungu is not a racist term: at the Nyabagogu bus station, a bus conductor competing with a rival buses shouted, “come on my bus, you can sit next to a mzungu.” That struck me as the very opposite of racism. This was Rosa Parks in reverse.
Besides, every time I got mzungu’d it was usually followed by a friendly conversations – “how are you?”, a “bonjour” from a passerby. The stares of curiosity not xenophobia.
I reminded myself that context was everything – most Rwandans don’t have running water any way (80%) and to get it they would have to walk then on average two miles; mosquitos were rare; economic growth was returning and the city in 2008 was sizing up to be hi-tech and planned; the literacy rate for the under 25s was over 80%; the hottest temperature was a pleasant 28 degrees (82 degrees F); by May the rains had almost stopped and there would be unconditional blue skies till September. For every annoyance there was at least one reason to be cheerful.
I realised I could get used to having fewer possessions. No TV, no fridge, no water coming out of the taps became no problem. There were ways round it. My life revolved in the evenings around a jigsaw puzzle, a laptop and a tennis racket.
Rwanda is called the “Land of the Thousand Hills”, but then by definition it must also be a land of a thousand valleys; the highs and lows of living here, just like its landscape. Rwanda is a country of opposites, of a bitter past and a hopeful future, of nightmares and dreams, of fears and hopes, of rich soil where anything grows and grinding poverty.
Rwanda presents the very vicissitudes of life that mirror the bitter-sweetness of what it means to be a human. And if we listen close enough to her story, we might even learn more about ourselves.
POST SCRIPT: My friend Henriette taught me a new word: “Checheka”.
I resolved to use it to handle the gratuitous mzungu’ing that annoyed me. In kinyarwanda it means ‘shut your mouth‘.
Checheka. I liked the way that sounded.