Wednesday, December 28, 2011

There's a First Time for Everything

The past few days have included a lot of “firsts” for me.
1. First Christmas in Rwanda
2. First time carrying a load of materials on my head
3. First time being a part of a family of 16 girls
4. First time being stared at by an angry chicken
5. First time hitchhiking
  • I knew being away from family for the holidays was going to be difficult, and it certainly was, but I really tried to treat it like any other day, and thanks to Bourbon Coffee being open for business, and some friends at my side to play cards with, it really turned out to be as normal of a day as I could make it out to be. I learned that Christmas Eve is like American Black Friday on steroids in Kigali – it seemed as though everyone in Kigali waited until December 24th to shop for everything, meaning that the stores were loaded with patrons beyond capacity, the air was stale, and the temperature inside each store was intolerable. It also meant that the children were out in full-force, trying as they might to get whatever they could from the Muzungos. All I heard all day from the children in the streets was “give me a happy Christmas!” “Make me happy.” “Give me money!” It wore me down pretty quickly, and that, mixed with the heat and the crowds just about did me in for the day. Note to self: avoid doing any kind of errands on Christmas Eve in Kigali
  • We have been frantically preparing for the first year students to arrive in the Village (they came yesterday), and part of the preparation included hauling multiple months’ worth of materials to each house. In America, we would just throw the materials in a car, and drop them off at their respective end-point, however vehicles are hard to come by in the Village, and who needs a vehicle when you have manpower (or woman-power as is the case with me). I have always been rough and tumble, probably in part to the fact that I grew up with 3 older brothers, but the hauling involved brute strength over a lengthy period of time and an extended distance. I don’t care how prepared I thought I was physically for this, strength or no strength, I wish I had a donkey to help with lugging the household goods! Without a donkey, and without a vehicle, I was left to rely on my head and my back. All over this country, I see women carrying a variety of goods on their heads, and every woman with a child carries him or her on her back, so I have been curious to know how it’s done, and whether it’s efficient and effective. Well, I am curious no more because I have been indoctrinated. In fact, world-wide (with the exception of Western Europe and North America) people who must carry heavy loads often choose to carry the loads on their heads, apparently for good reason. Studies on East African women have shown that they can carry loads of up to 20% of their body weight (equivalent to a good size suitcase) for 'free', i.e. for no increase in their metabolism. Furthermore, these women can carry up to 70% of their body weight on their heads considerably more economically than their Western counterparts can carry equivalent backpack loads. For example, an African woman can carry a load equal to 70% of her body weight at 3.5 km/hr for 50% less energy that an American army recruit with the same load in a backpack. There’s a fun fact for you for today! Here’s the truth of the matter though – unless you can carry the load on your head sans arms (ie. for balance and/or to keep the load from falling off your head), there is no sense in hauling it via your head because before too long, the blood starts to drain from your hands and arms, and then you find yourself standing in the middle of the road unable to move, for fear that if you so much as twitch, the entire load will take a tumble to the ground. Yes, that happened to me. Lesson learned: unless you can balance your load on your head without using your arms, just carry the damn load with your arms like a Westerner, and stop trying to be something you aren’t.
  • As previously mentioned, the first-year students arrived at the Village yesterday, and the family assignments were handed out to each new student. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by 16 young girls, all excitedly clamoring about how much love they already felt from everyone inside the Village. One of the things that surprised and impressed me most was how quickly the students bonded with one another – holding hands, laughing and running with one another (boys and girls alike), etc. It was a sight to behold! The bonding expanded today, with girls playing with my hair, holding my hand, and resting their heads on my shoulder during morning conversation. The family dynamic is starting to take shape, and I am excited to watch it develop and unfold. The photo to the left is of my Rwandan family and their guardians on move-in day.
  • I was in Kigali this past weekend, and on my way back to the Village, I had to sit at the bus station for a bit, which is better than watching the best of reality TV in the states. I have come to expect to see a lot at the bus stations because there is an air of controlled chaos. If you will, imagine a dusty lot filled with people shouting and buses honking, mixed with buses driving in every direction imaginable, children selling sambussas, drinks, candy, peanuts, the cell phone companies selling phones and minutes, and people walking seemingly oblivious through it all wearing t-shirts from the U.S., which people have donated over the years. It is better people-watching than you could ever find at JFK or LAX airport! Truly, it’s a spectacle. Part of the exhibition is the variety of farm life that comes through the station and gets onto the buses. Sure, there are plenty of bushels of plantains and bananas, sacks of potatoes and carrots, but there are also chickens. Yes, I said chickens. What I learned was that there is not just 1 way to transport a chicken. I have seen multiple chickens inside a burlap bag, chickens inside wash basins, chickens inside shopping bags…all of them alive. BUT, the chicken that I encountered on Christmas was being toted around by his owner by its wings (for lack of a better term – I raised rabbits in 4H, not chickens, so I apologize for my ignorance when it comes to chicken body parts). The chicken/rooster was just chillin’ until our eyes met, and then I saw the anger streaming from his eyes. To be fair, I suppose I would be angry too if my arms were being held behind my back, above my head, and I was being toted through a hot, dusty bus station. That chicken set its eyes on me and would not look away. It was at that point that I made 2 declarations – 1. I am absolutely done with eating chicken, and 2. If that chicken got on my bus to Ntunga, I was going to either ride on the roof, walk, or hitchhike back to the Village. I was not going to be “locked” inside with 19 people and a chicken…that was certain. I apologize for not taking a picture of the angry chicken, but there was no need to make him any more angry.
  • Speaking of hitchhiking, that was another first this past weekend. A group of us wanted to go to Lake Muhaze (photo to the right) for the day on Friday, but when we tried to catch a bus in Ntunga, the line was way too long, and the buses were all showing up ¾ full of passengers, not enabling all 5 of us to catch the same bus. Along came a truck, and luckily we knew the sign for hitchhiking in Rwanda (with your palm up, stick out your arm and move it upward, as if you are signaling that you want a “lift.”) For ½ the price of the bus, we climbed into the back of the truck and enjoyed an open-air ride to the lake (photo to the left) . It was spectacular, and so much better than the 19 passenger buses for so many reasons, including the fact that there weren’t any chickens on board. Keep in mind that the bus is still a smarter choice a) if you are traveling alone, and b) if it is raining.

There is a first time for everything, and I've always said I'll try anything once. I know the above list will grow over the course of the next 11 months, and throughout my lifetime, and I look forward to sharing more "firsts" as I experience them. The new experiences over the past few days have solidified that not every day will be spectacular; however every day is still great in its own way when I change my perspective and look at challenges as lessons, and obstacles as anything but insurmountable. My mom reminded me that, "This is a journey of strength and perseverance." Those words were added to my inspiration notebook which was given to me by my alumni association family at Lehigh, just prior to me leaving. Messages like those, and the notes and comments from my family and friends keep me smiling each night before I go to bed, keep me grounded, and get me jumping out of bed in the morning, anxious to see what will unfold with each new day so that I can share them with all of you. Keep the notes (and love) coming, I will keep sharing my stories from Rwanda!

Kinyarwanda word of the day: mugenda - translation: go away/leave me alone (useful when kids are swarming you and screaming "give me a merry christmas")

Another Kinyarwanda word: mbabarira - translation: I'm sorry/I apologize (useful when you keep bumping into people in the overcrowded stores on Christmas Eve)

What critter was in my room this week?: a black mouse - yes, I screamed like a girl and called my friend Miki to get it out of my room (it ran across the hall and into my housemate Jeanne's room...sorry Jeanne)

Memorable moment: watching the sun set from the highest point in the Village on Christmas day (see photo below)


  1. Barre, a belated Merry Christmas! I hope you're not too sore from your moving experiences. I have tried carrying loads on my head, too - and I agree that it's something that must take practice:) Thanks for teaching me some Kinyarwanda! I love that you are already learning and speaking it:) Thinking of you often!

  2. So glad to hear that this is starting off as a positive experience for you, Barre. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Love reading your every word. Our love keeps you smiling and your experiences keep me laughing. Way to dive in head first like the locals. Ha. And I suppose this may have been your first introduction to a form of "baby wearing". Didn't know I needed to lend you my Moby and other carriers for your journey! I've carried my fair share of "loads" on my back over the last 4.5 years and would have happily given you a little preparation hauling Parker around Target on black Friday if you wanted some added experience. Hehe. Luv u! Kristen and the whole Townsend clan.