Where you never walk alone

In contrast to my daily commute in London, my walk home in Kigali was rarely dull, no two journeys were ever the same. Sometimes I encountered friendly faces and random, curious hellos. At times it felt welcoming and for anyone who’s ever consistently made an urban commute, in the hushed solemnity of an underground of averted gazes, this was different. It was ‘unlonely’.


The sun in Rwanda is quick to appear and disappear. Lightness and darkness at the equator come to an amicable agreement – they split the clock between them equally. Because of this 5 billion year old understanding between night and day (all very civilised at the earth’s podgy midriff) the sun rises early, about 6am, and sets early about 6pm. Word is kept. The sun goes to hell. That’s the deal. No one questions it, not even the moon whose borrowed light has a more complex agreement with the earth.


I would usually leave my workplace, the Kigali Genocide Memorial, at about 5.30pm when the sun would be diving fast, day’s work done, time to down tools and hit the violet pillowy hills around the city.

Down that long u-bend schoolkids in uniforms passed, some with curious stares, some would make their bonjours’, ca vas, ‘eh muzungus’ or even good mornings (at 5.30pm!).

Sure some would want money (‘donnez moi cent franc monsieur,’) but why not? Children across the world are prone to chance their luck for anything of worth, a new bike or games console, more pocket money, sweets, pets and sleepovers with friends. It’s how they’re programmed.

On an average afternoon it was possible to say hello to ten people on the homeward commute.  Children would have no hesitation in talking to me. I admired such forwardness and bravado. It was something we as children in London in the 70s used to call, ‘bottle’.

Rwanda is a young country; half the population are under 20 years old. When you travel the length and breadth of this smalll land, you notice them everywhere; they jump up and down on boats on lake Kivu; they dive on piles of sand like goalkeepers, outside our VSO bungalow; they push wire toys they kick banana leaf footballs and they clap, wave and shout at passing cars; they collect water in yellow plastic jerry cans and carry them back, staggering like Tantalus, for mum; they look after a baby on their backs and impart advice to their little siblings. (Except for the moments of quiet introspection, their movements are nearly always highly energetic.)

There are issues in the country. Poverty and childhood mortality but yet they behave with this unabashed, youthful gusto, this unselfconscious, playful exuberance? Were they desperate to get my attention in a ploy to soften me up, to reel me in, to get my coins?

Perhaps some. But for most I think it was much simpler; these are the universal joys of childhood, the human spirit in its purest form, unfettered from self-consciousness, a time in their lives when dreams are still intact, not broken, their eyes hopeful.

It’s so utterly human to acknowledge a stranger’s presence, a simple hello or smile, nothing further intended, a savvy knowing that that the only things we have in common are that we inhabit this small space together and for a moment our lives overlapped. It wears away as we get older, for fear of looking silly, or looking out of place, or the fear of being knocked back by an unrequited nod. Children know this better.

No wonder they’d yelp for joy for no apparent reason. Becasue the children of Rwanda never walked alone.


This was a post in the series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com.  Background to the series can be found here

Photo copyright: Sam Boarer.

Previous posts in the series are below:

1.The flight to Rwanda, the contraband and spotless Kigali      

2. A letter from the heart of Africa – settling in fine

3. Getting to work, Rwanda style

3.  Peter and the Soup Confusion

4. A special place of remembrance, hope and beauty

5. Help! I’m a businessman going to work in an NGO in Africa

6. The importance of memory

7. We Need To Talk About Why People Kill Each Other

8. Stolen socks and missing underpants 

9. Banana-leaf balls, making friends and a bitter falling out

10. The Shimmering Lake in the Shadow of the Volcano

11. The Chatter of the Raindrops

12. My friends, the survivors

13. Politicians and popstars

14. The Spotless City

15. Leisure pursuits: tennis, jogging and painful stomach-flattening (please do not try this at home)

16. The Day When Time Slowed Down

17. A Festering Malice: The Grenade Attack

18. The Resilience of Hope

19. A weekend in the rural beauty of Rwanda

20. Feeling down

21. The Nemesis of my sole

22. In Search of Silence and the Missing Female to Female 9 Pin

23. Being mindful – bug bites and quiet nights

24. Unguarded Moments

25. As time goes by

Further posts will be published over the summer of 2018.



  1. I had a similar feeling not long ago, in Uzbekistan. Bukharan kids thought nothing of saying “hello!” to us foreigners. So, so, so different from London, I agree. It’s refreshing to see children being children.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Good old Sheri!

      Yes I would ultimately like to publish this series, I would need to rework some of it, as each post is about 1,500 words long and written for a blog. Do you think a wider audience of people may be interested?


      1. I for one love to read about experiences of people who live abroad, as I’ve lived abroad extensively myself. I haven’t read enough of yours to know, since I just found my way here. I’d say as long as there is a story arc, it will find an audience. 🙂


  2. “Bottle.” I wonder where that expression comes from? Is it brazen, forward behaviour brought on by the consumption of alcohol? If so, when did it begin being applied to the actions of children? Language is so fascinating.

    I imagine those “universal joys of childhood” would be magnified, despite the horrors of the genicide, in a place where there are so many children. If half the population is under twenty that would have a look and feel so different from anywhere else on earth. Wow. I’d never really thought about the implications of that.

    I imagine, too, that part of that spirit you felt there radiating off the children has something to do with how they are raised, with the intense value placed on life and kindness that has resulted from the horrific experiences endured by Rwandans. I’d think that society there (its values, its governance, its family structures and value systems) has changed remarkably so as to never repeat the autrocities of the past. And that intense fervour to recreate society and to heal would undoubtedly be exhibited in childrearing. Fascinating.

    Fast forward 20, 40 years…. what are the adults like? Does life dampen that enthusiasm, that bottle? Or does some of that youthful spirit and bigot remain more than it otherwise would in any other society because of the impact of recent history? What are the children of successive generations like?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You raise a very valid point, and one that I hadn’t considered when I wrote this. Whenever I have travelled to countries that have endured tragedies in living memory (Cambodia, Nicaragua, Rwanda) that fervour to recreate something better is really evident in many interactions and how people behave.

      My friends in Rwanda were all teenagers during the genocide, they have heart-rending stories of courage and resilience and terrible grief. But they have emerged as wonderful young people now. Some have got on with their lives with no animosity in them, and just hope to build a better Rwanda. Later in the series I will write about a friend of mine who found it in himself to forgive and befriend his mother’s killer (Working title, ‘Omeletes on Tuesdays’)

      There’s a whole generation of Rwandans born after the genocide who are confident and modern and hopeful. They are largely urban. Rural Rwanda is still quite different.

      About bottle, your question really got me thinking. We used it as children in London to mean having no fear, or holding your nerve so you could say ‘he’s got bottle’. Notice lack of ‘the’.
      The opposite was to ‘bottle out’ which is like in the American English, to chicken out. It had nothing to do with alcohol or even bottles.

      I did a bit of internet research today and found it comes from cockney rhyming slang. ‘ Bottle and glass’ rhymes with ass (well it does in the south east part of the UK) and so to say ‘he bottled it’ is to suggest, and I add the verbatim here because this is perhaps more eloquently put than how I would have explained it: ‘the ability to restrain the involuntary bowel-emptying that accompanies extreme fear!’


      I never knew that! So thank you Sheri for the laugh!


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