11th October, 2014
From the other side of the world, it’s really difficult to picture what my living situation is like here in Rukira. Let me describe my home life in more detail— where I live, but especially the people I live with.
At the center of my living situation is my host-grandfather, Martin Habiyakare. (Habiyakare roughly translates “God was there,” and his first name refers to Martin Luther.) He is about five foot three, with shiny dark skin, a big belly, and a hearty laugh. His furrowed brow suggests his wisdom and experience, as do the thin rings of mysterious blue which surround the brown irises of his eyes; yet these qualities in him are tempered by a jolly attitude. I may have said before that he is retired, but he rejects that label. “I am soon to retire,” he says, “and I am resting from having worked hard as a pastor. But I am still the leader of our parish, and the overseer of the churches in our region.” He has too much love for the Church to stop working.
Martin has had many relationships with Americans before, and has thus known well how I might feel more comfortable in his home. He has given me my own small room with a desk, and is usually happy to give me alone time when I need it. He is non-judgmental and accepting of my many American oddities— for example, that I wear shorts, and that I have long hair and a beard, and that I read and write a lot. He encourages me in all things to “feel free,” by which he means “Be yourself, (and I’ll tell you if you accidentally do something unacceptably rude.”) There is, however, one behavior of mine which he enjoys to relentlessly challenge: my eating habits. After every meal, without exception, Martin looks at my plate, disappointedly saying, “You have finished?” He sighs, and proceeds to unleash a number of different rhetorical attacks to make me “Put more!” The same happens every time we have tea or porridge. I have gotten better at resisting, having verbally sparred with him at least half a dozen times a day.
Martin and I are not the only two who live in this house: there is also a very shy young woman named Patricia, who does all the cooking (in the kitchen, a dark edifice between the house with a handmade wood-burning stove and some other basic equipment) and the house cleaning and clothes washing (done by hand in plastic tubs and hung on wire lines behind the house). She works hard— very hard— but never shows a trace of discontent. She usually sings or listens to upbeat Kinyarwanda church choir music on her cell phone while she works. Martin also employs a man named Josephat, a 30-year-old with muscular arms and a lazy eye, to care for his two cows and bring water to the house. (There is no plumbing in the house, so Josephat carries heavy jerry cans of water on his bicycle, and fills them at a water tank behind our church.) It was initially strange to accept that Patricia and Josephat should do all of the work in the house; but it is a part of Rwandan culture, not even exclusively among the rich. So, I have usually not helped with the chores, but have made it a habit to thank them many times a day.
Our food lacks the variety that Americans enjoy, but is tasty and plentiful. Many of the things we eat every day come directly from Martin’s fields, or those of others in Rukira: cooked bananas (the local equivalent of potatoes), beans and rice, ground nut sauce (delicious), African tea (which is mostly milk from Martin’s cow, very little actual tea), and cooked cabbage or cassava. We drink thin porridge made of maize flour, soy, and sorghum every morning; and we buy beef and fish at the market every Thursday, which we then eat at each meal until it’s gone. We also buy vegetables and some fruit. (We eat much less fruit than I had expected we would, particularly sweet bananas.) In another ultra-kind gesture of hospitality to me, Martin regularly buys spaghetti (which is called “amakaroni” here) and delicious sweet breads once a week or so.
Our home has electricity, though we only use it to charge cell phones and laptops during the day, and for light and television in the evening. We don’t have a refrigerator (very few Rwandans use one). Martin and I watch Rwandan Television News at 8:00 every evening over dinner, and often watch it again at 9:00 in English. Martin has a laptop, which I have been teaching him to use. (I helped him download a free typing software program, and his elation at slightly-higher marks of accuracy has been priceless.) We have excellent cell phone access and 2G Internet via USB modems.
Clearly, there are many differences between my life here and life in America; but many of the stereotypes I had (consciously and sub-consciously) have been dispelled. Of course, Martin’s home is just one point on a spectrum of living situations in Rukira. I hope to develop a much broader picture of life here as the year unfolds.