Most of the nights after work were quiet nights at home and I found my pace shifted down a gear, my tempo slowed and I became more mindful – without the distractions of wi-fi and liberated from a smartphone, my attention sharpened and became undivided.
I’d take time to study the red blossom on a shapely tree, notice the subtle variations in the way Rwandans shook hands or how they strolled effortlessly up hills without getting puffed out. I’d notice more sounds, birdsong, the rustle in the breeze and observe the myriad of colour washes in the 6pm sunset from blood-red, salmon-pink, saffron to sky-blue and sapphire, and on the top of them all, where the first stars appeared, jet-black.
I was sure there was an animal in the attic of the bungalow because at dusk the patter of tiny running feet above the ceiling would resonate. A small creature, maybe a lizard or a rat, was getting stir crazy from its short runs back and forth on the sheet metal.
One morning when I woke, I noticed a trail of red, bumpy bite-marks on my arms and was puzzled as to quite how that had happened because I’d always sleep under a mosquito net; last thing at night before nodding off was to ensure the edges of the net were tucked under the mattress.
Note: This post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa, about my life in Rwanda. It can be read as a stand-alone piece of narrative, but for context and other posts in the series, please click here.
On laundry morning (Sunday when Rimera resounded with a cacophony of church music from loudspeakers) all became revealed – I moved my pillows to expose a small family of cockroaches scurrying away sheepishly; they were my nocturnal midnight feasters and bed-fellows. I didn’t begrudge them – cockroaches prefer crumbs of food to humans, and if they do nibble us, they feast on places like the edges of our nails and eyelashes where they might find some tasty ‘nibbly bits’. But becoming trapped in my bed, their only source of sustenance was either some bed-sheets or me – thus I became their midnight feast by being their least worse option.
I wasn’t flattered, but I was grateful that I still had eyelashes.
The volunteering charity that placed me in Rwanda, VSO, was keen to ensure that our lives were reasonably Spartan – I earned $5 a day, had no TV, fridge or running water although I did live in a lovely bungalow with two verandahs, a security guard called Peter, and I used my savings to have a weekly tennis lesson and go to a nice restaurant once in a while.
I felt I wanted for nothing because months in, something happened to my needs; it was as if I had unplugged and down-sized to a more manageable, less complex lifestyle, with fewer options, where my possessions were minimal. Unencumbered, life felt more real and what I owned felt more valuable.
Lennon sang ‘Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.’ ; if I was realistic, I personally would find that difficult but if it was ‘imagine having fewer possessions?’, although the meter of the words would be ruined, it could be somewhat liberating.
I no longer missed having running water in the house. I was lucky to have a tap just outside the bungalow which isn’t so bad when you consider people across the world walk miles every day for a source of water. I devised a calculated water-routine that enabled me to wash, shave and flush the loo with precisely two buckets of water.
I bought myself a little electrical filament, from the Chinese store, like those you see inside a kettle, but with a plastic handle which clipped to the side of a bucket where it warmed up currents of water in the till it was bubbling. It was only when a VSO colleague warned me that his filament had burned through his bucket, exploded and shorted the whole hse, that I saw this as a bad idea. There was a growing realisation that that bathing in cold water was a better start to the day than electrocution.
Because the house had no fridge, I bought food on a daily basis, and I learned to note the ‘consume by’ dates. Cheese and milk were suspended in buckets of water to lengthen their edibility but that soon became too much of a hassle, so I had black tea and gave up on Welsh Rarebits. I ate very little meat; fresh fruit and veg became staples. I lost weight and started to enjoy a healthier diet.
Some of the other volunteers in rural Rwanda had wood stoves and a part of me did envy their rustic lifestyle in the middle of nowhere where they’d sit on their front doorsteps in the evening, star-gazing at a spilled emulsion of constellations and galaxy swirls. From what I heard of their stories, their minimal lives were idyllic.
On quiet nights in, I’d watch DVDs on my laptop, listen to music on a USB stick or read, more than I ever did before, mainly on understanding Africa – the two books that stuck with me as sources of rich enlightenment were Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘Shadow of the Sun’, of the best travel writers of all time, and Fergal Keane’s ‘Season of Blood’ a troubling but seminal narrative from someone who witnessed first-hand, the 1994 genocide.
Some nights I’d listen to a simple transistor radio that could pick up thumping tunes of the BBC Radio Africa. It’s true love can move mountains but music can set you free. As my radio was battery powered, when the electricity power failed (which was quite frequently) I was thankful for the music, and the low-tech gadget. Soon the well-used radio started to malfunction and I had to squeeze its sides or else it would fizz like an Alka-Seltzer drowning out the broadcast. I really didn’t want to throw it away so I tried to salvage it by placing weights on it – a book, my shaving mug, a boot anything – in the end I fashioned a simple repair with several rubber bands holding it tightly together and a new aerial improvised with a piece of coat hanger wire. (This was quite an achievement for me for I have the engineering expertise of Mr Bean).
Objects became less disposable in my Rwandan life unlike the use-it-up-and-throw-away culture of London or any big city where replacement usurps repair and call-out charges are often greater than the price of the appliance itself. My life became closer to the frugal culture of my father who could perform minor repairs on TVs, radios, radiators and cars, and my mum who darned my socks, grew our vegetables, made vases out of cola bottles, flower tubs from car tyres turned inside out and recycled jam jars to store spices. I got a sense of that once again, recycling bottles (for a returned deposit), re-purposing objects, and using cloth bags which in Rwanda (where plastic bags were banned in 2008) was a necessity. Living frugally came hand in hand with living sustainably.
When I came home to England at the end of my placement, and went to the local supermarket, I found the number of choices overwhelming; the 30 types of toothpaste that whitened teeth, or prevented plaque, some fresh and minty, some with blue stripes some with red stripes and some with micro-crystals; the 20 types of milk from different fat content, to rice, soya, and almond, coconut, goat and types flavoured with strawberry or chocolate; 50 different of types of cereals; even basic things like potatoes had varieties like Maris piper, King Edwards and Charlottes to name a few.
Staring at those supermarket aisles that I had walked so many times, it suddenly seemed rather overwhelming, superfluous and a little bit over the top. But after a few weeks, I had Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs in my fridge, binge watched my telly and washed the car with bucketfuls of water. My days of fewer possessions, faded like a distant dream that I could hardly imagine.
To read more posts in this series called Letters from the Heart of Africa, please click here.