Friday, May 24, 2013

This isn't Africa, Toto

Well, the time has long passed since I've returned from Rwanda. Am I changed? Undoubtedly. Will I go back? I hope so.  But now, I'm back in America, unsure what to do with myself and my sweet fiance says I should write something. And though I doubt anyone is still checking to see what exciting thing I might say next, write I shall.

But where to begin? A play by play of my exciting life? A catch up on the last 2 years?

This morning my apartment's water was turned off for a bit. They had warned me last night, but I forgot and hurriedly hopped into the shower in hopes of beating the repairman. I was successful, until it was time for conditioner, then suddenly the water started to disappear. But don't you worry, just enough dribbled out for a good-enough rinse, and I felt a little smug about my feat. I am still thankful every time I turn on a shower, where the water comes straight out of the faucet, doesn't blow off the shower head, or need to be turned on outside, hot, and plentiful.

I won't say that living in Rwanda made me so much of a better person, that I only use a gallon of water a day now, or I've completely given up the use of plastic bags, or that I savor every bit of food that doesn't include matoke (plantains), chips (french fries) or goat (goat), but I do still appreciate the little things more and I think my heart beats more deeply than it used to.

So for all the children carrying water on your head, all the grown-ups putting Nido in your tea or coffee, all the missionaries missing carpet, AC and having your own car, I salute you. And you're welcome in my home anytime.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Smell of Preserved Death

Recently I was re-reading a book about the genocide in Rwanda, and in one passage a woman expressed smelling death all around her. It made me wonder, if my sterile, safe American nose would know the smell of death if I too was surrounded by it.

Just a few days later, I think I caught a whiff.

The history of Rwanda in the last 50 years is far too full of massacres and deception for any local person to forget. But in case the day comes when that is no longer true, and to honor the thousands upon thousands of innocent people who lost their lives because of nonsensical tribal hatred, memorial sites have been established all over Rwanda. I have been to several of these sites, some are no more than a tiny plot of land draped with purple ribbon and a small sign, others are entire churches filled with the remnants of life and death.

One memorial that was especially striking was a church spattered with bullet holes that had pews (or really small benches) piled high with the clothing of the 10,000 people who had been killed within its walls. In the yard, white tiled boxes gave way to two large underground rooms that were filled with coffins and naked bones of the victims. I found myself a bit short of breath.

A couple of days ago, I visited another. The location was a school, or rather it was supposed to be a school, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The guide told us that the government had advised the Tutsi people of the area to gather not in the churches but in this school-to-be, where they would be protected. More than 50,000 people came from all over the area, trusting that they would indeed be safe, but 2 weeks after the genocide began, they were slaughtered. Mass graves were filled with men, women, children and babies. A year later, when the new government was going back to genocide sites and re-burying victims, they found one of the graves so well sealed that the bodies had only partially decayed. Instead of continuing with the reburial process, a decision was made to preserve what remained of these people so that they could remain as a vivid reminder of the genocide. The bodies were covered with limestone, which stops their decay and leaves the stiff, flattened corpses in what looks a little like a white plaster cast.

We stood in the lawn near the buildings that were intended to be classrooms, and have instead become houses for the deceased as our guide was telling us the story of the massacre, and the discovery and preservation of the bodies. A few times, the wind blew and an unpleasant aroma would pass by. At first I thought nothing of it, unpleasant smells are not uncommon in Africa, but then the thought struck me, "what if that is the smell of death?" As we passed through room after room filled with the self-entombed bodies of victims, my suspicion, at least in part, was confirmed.

Stepping into each room would have been overwhelming enough had the air been fresh; viewing people whose last moments of consciousness were filled with horror, and now had no choice but to be laid out on display for whoever chooses to stop by is difficult enough to swallow. Seeing faces frozen in screams, legs missing feet, arms missing hands, skulls cracked open by blunt force takes its toll. Maybe even more disturbing were those who looked at peace; a baby sucking its thumb, a man laying as though he were asleep, an old woman whose sister I could swear I've met. But then on top of all of that was the smell.

Maybe it wasn't the same odor that was described as death, when it was fresh. Maybe it was just the scent of limestone. But somehow I knew that this was different than a room full of rocks would smell. There was, at one point, life in that stench.

As it turned out, I did know the smell of death, preserved though it was. The woman I read about probably didn't know that particular scent before it was all around her either. I think maybe it's just something we know inherently, the contrast between life and growth and death and decay.

I have to say, though, that while the horror of murder and massacre was wickedly evident, I was grateful. I was glad that though so many had suffered, they no longer are feeling the terror and pain they faced in life. And though I can't account for a single soul's current suffering or joy, but I have to believe that many are now living in peace. And that, was my second piece of gratitude. The hope of a life not torn by conflict, jealousy, fear, or anger, but instead bathed in the endless light and peace of my loving God that cares enough to have exposed His own son to a horrific death. Thankfully, limestone couldn't hold Him back.

I guess that the smell of death, preserved or fresh, is also the evidence of life. I think maybe that's why it holds so much power.

Monday, November 1, 2010


My roommate told me that I'd regret taking this picture. My Rwandese friend said that this picture will make him vomit. I won't tell them I'm showing the rest of you.

In my imagination, Africa is full of lions and elephants, enormous snakes and bugs beyond comprehension. I don't doubt that they do in fact exist, and even are sharing this massive continent with me right now. But they forgot to come to Rwanda. Our most frequent pests, or pets, depending how you view them, are geckos. I really appreciate them generally, because they keep down the misquito population that otherwise likes to attack en masse. Occasionally we're visited by little friends like this guy, but even more often the animal population in my neighborhood is restricted to roosters, dogs, and an occasional goat.

It's nothing like I would have expected.

And such is life, isn't it? The friends we make and the friends we keep are often surprising. The places we end up are rarely the places we had mapped out for ourselves. The blessings often become the curses, and vice versa. At least that's the way it seems to go in my world, but here I am in Africa, so perhaps my experiences are extreme.

Today, at work, we had an unexpected victory. After what has sometimes felt like the ramming of one's proverbial head into a wall, we were all surprised by our ability to come together and accomplish something; something that made a difference in someone's life. Two weeks ago we couldn't have pulled it off.

I never cease to be amazed at the way that God continually works in my life and in my world. And then I wonder how I was so quick to doubt that He would, after He has done it so many times in the past. I think it's to do with how God doesn't use my plans...doesn't indulge my imaginary world, and so I feel disillusioned and disappointed and sure that nothing could ever work out. But somehow reality, though often more painful, confusing and scary always wins. And by the grace of God it's better.

Like frogs instead of lions. Maybe someday I'll learn.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bet you thought I forgot Hearing

I didn't. It's been written for months actually. But sadly my free trial of Microsoft Word has expired and I can no longer access my own work, and you better believe I'm not going to retype it all. I'd like to include some videos of the children's songs or the traditional music, or even the unfamiliar sounds of a foreign tongue for you all to enjoy, but there's no chance the internet has the capacity for it. Some other time, perhaps.

Until then, I'll tell you something else. Perhaps you'd like to hear some adventures from the third world?? I'm afraid I lack quality stories in that category. Life is basic, but not especially difficult. Running out of the things that seem like basic necessities (water, gas for cooking, electricity) are not really major issues, and will happen. Most likely all within a day or two.

I am learning a lot, but as is generally the case, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. It appears that I really have nothing to say. So I'll include a few pictures to distract you from my writing and hope you won't give up on my thought-sharing entirely. I might even follow through and tell you something about the sounds of Rwanda if you're really patient.

Hmph. Speaking of patience, I will tell you this. Since moving to Rwanda I have been accused of being impatient, complicated, dramatic and fat. I won't say none of these were ever true before, but I guess people forgot to mention them, because they feel new to me. Maybe people here are just a little more honest. Good thing I know now so I can get better!

Monday, April 26, 2010


How to express this multifaceted and full sense, I do not know; but I will try to highlight a few things which have been especially meaningful or noticeable to me. There are three colors which are especially vivid in Rwanda: green, blue, and orange-brown. In fact, if I had to eliminate one of those, I would take away blue, though its contrast to the others highlights them beautifully. But everything seems to make use of one of these colors. The manicured lawns are not limited to wealthy estates, but each home and place of business large enough to have a yard, even the medians in the road, are occupied by perfectly cut, vividly green grass and trees. The hills (this is the land of a thousand hills) are similarly vivid. Each hill appears fresh and alive; most are filled not only with wild greens, but are cultivated and full of crops of corn, cassava, pumpkin, banana trees, and I’m sure a variety of other things that I cannot yet identify. Then, in contrast to the green, is this orange-brown. It is so similar to both colors, I cannot call it either, neither can it be distinguished from one or the other. It is the color of bricks, or rust, similar in tone to the dirt of Eastern Montana, if you are familiar with said dirt, yet it is brighter. The children here are painted in orange, especially those who live in villages; it is as though their wash is done in orange-brown dye, though I think it is more correct to think they simply gather their colors as they play, since their parents do not display the same color palette. Even as I look past my yard into the valley of the city beyond, I am struck again by these same colors. And a cream color, that appears to be the paint of choice by those fortunate enough to color their homes.
Besides the colors, I find it hard to describe Kigali. It is surprisingly clean, though ramshackle houses fill in the gaps between the larger, more dignified homes. Anyone can afford to has a wall around their property, often topped by bits of glass, barbed wire, or other spiky objects, intended to keep out those that might somehow manage to scale the large imposing walls and huge metal gates. The people in the streets are well dressed, men typically dress very western, though their source of western wear might be limited to a closet fresh from the 80’s or 90’s, men are also occasionally spotted in more traditional dress, long shirts with pants to match in brightly colored and patterned fabric. Women, similarly, choose a combination of western dress and traditional, though I have not noticed the women here to have a style nearly so out-of-date as their male counterparts. Many women choose traditional fabrics, and look stunning as they do. They have an ability to combine colors and patterns that would make any fashion conscious westerner cringe, yet they wear it well. Their fabrics are a variety of patterns; some are simply shapes, while others display envelopes, beverages, even political figures (Obama is a very popular choice). I am at a loss as how to describe this place beyond what I have already. I feel as though what I’ve said is such a small spectrum of what I see (though you may feel differently, as you have been reading my lengthy descriptions), but perhaps if I were better able to describe this place, you might be less inclined to see it for yourself, and that would be a pity for sure.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Touch and Taste

Much as the smells of Rwanda were very quickly noticeable, I was also quickly aware of the differences of touch here. The best way I could describe it, especially initially, was always touched but never felt. As I would suppose would be the tendency of most over-crowded situations, people here are frequently jammed together in small spaces (especially in regards to transport-both finding it and using it) but it is as though they do not feel you there with them. Coming from a place where people value and even demand their personal space, and where touching another person is typically a noticed and intentional act, I was initially unsure quite how to process this new way of life. Another aspect of touch that quite fascinated me was that not only was unintentional touch quite unnoticed, but intentional is also much more frequent than I am accustomed to. With each greeting, it is expected that you will at least shake the hand of your companion, whether well known or a new acquaintance-though the form of ‘handshake’ can vary considerably from someone offering you their wrist to and extended hand-hold to the triple-cheek-touch of a close friend. I do believe I have offended my colleagues on occasion as I forgot to extend a hand in my morning greetings, and quickly breezed by them with words and a smile. I am learning. The third surprise for my reserved sense of space that I have encountered here is that of hand-holding. Although I had been informed before arriving that men might often be seen holding hands, I still marveled to see it for myself. In fact, I am still somewhat fascinated by this practice, though it does not surprise me nearly as much as it did initially. Much less commonly will two women be seen holding hands, and only on occasion have I seen a man and woman walk hand-in-hand—and even then, I could not tell you whether the two were friends or lovers, the act of holding hands is not reserved here for acts of intimacy, at least not in my traditional American standard. But it is intimacy, I suppose; it is sharing yourself with another person, displaying care or affection without having to express your appreciation with words. That actually sounds a lot like something men would prefer (in general, of course), doesn’t it? Either way, I think it will be some time before seeing two teenage boys, dressed to impress and walking hand in hand not give me pause.
This sense has not been especially impressed nor indulged since my arrival. The common food here is rather simple, containing vegetables, French fries, sometimes rice, and often some form of red sauce, content of which unknown by me, which often contains beef, to be poured over the rest of the contents of the plate. Cheese is uncommon, and not especially enjoyable when found, meat is often tough, and its flavor mediocre, spices are not indulged in, and sweets are typically less sweet than I am accustomed to. There are some foods here which I especially appreciate though; fruit (though variety is limited) is fresh and delicious, avocado (is that a fruit?) is terrific and very easy to find, and I recently had a cup of what is called “African tea” that tasted just like what an American would call a Chai Latte…delicious. Not to worry, I have not gone hungry even once, and there are a variety of restaurants around Kigali that attempt (and are successful to various degrees) to please the Western palette, but learning to eat (and cook) in Rwanda are undeniably a time for change-and at times a challenge as well.

Indulging the Senses

Indulging the Senses

I think anytime you are dropped into a place and culture far from your own, your senses are bound to go a little crazy trying to absorb all of the differences and new sensations. Rwanda has been no exception, though I think as time passes I am less and less aware of my initial sensory absorption. Before they are fully absorbed and can no longer be recognized and therefore expressed, I will do what I can to share them with you.


As I first stepped off the plane in Africa, I was pleased to be greeted by the fresh smells of the morning. I had anticipated humidity that would hold in the smells of city, but it was not to be. Kigali is surprisingly fresh and clean, especially for a city of a million people, many of whom live in obvious poverty. But as I journeyed a little farther, I became quickly aware of another smell, less fragrant and pleasurable than the last. It is the smell of people-though the scent is quite distinct from the people-smells I have previously encountered. I have yet to identify whether it is an unclean smell, that of sweat and grime, or if it is an intentional one, that of creams or oils. Perhaps it is some combination of the two, though the scent grows much stronger in small, confined spaces like mini-buses, always filled to the brim with those of us not fortunate enough to own our own cars. This people-smell, as with all others, is quickly fading, though I think if I were to encounter it away from Africa, I might recognize it immediately and know the association without much thought. The majority of the time now, my nose is filled with smells of cooking over small coal fires, fruit trees which seem continually in bloom, rain, and as I have recently moved into a freshly painted-and-repaired house, the smells of glue, paint, and what I imagine to be some sort of cleaning supplies. In sum, my nose is not unhappy here.