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.
Photo copyright: Sam Boarer.
Previous posts in the series are below:
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by
Further posts will be published over the summer of 2018.