Not too long ago, I was explaining Murphy’s law to my student Tanita. We had just had a singularly horrible day together, so it was an appropriate time to reconcile our misery with the humorous theory than anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong. While Murphy’s law holds true for a number of my experiences in Rwanda, today was about another rather unfortunate law: Naomi’s law of things that sting.
As I was closing the library this afternoon, a student requested a bag. I keep a stash of bags in the inch of space between my wooden shelving unit and the wall, so I stuck my hand in to grab him one. Um. OW.
As the side of my hand filled with pinpricks of white-hot pain, I ran over to the window to investigate what I was sure was a splinter. Much to my surprise, I discovered several dozen tiny brown shards of something sticking out of my hand. This is an odd set of splinters, I thought, maybe I’ll ask maintenance to sand the side of my shelf so this doesn’t happen again. As I started to pull the barbs out of my hand, I realized they were not coming out as easily as they should be. Tanita happened to be in the Library along with another student and the two girls rushed over to see what was causing my yelps of pain.
“It’s ok, it’s just a splinter,” I said.
“Nope,” Tanita said. “Not a splinter.”
“Well then what is it?!”
“A caterpillar!” Diane said.
Just then a third student, David, who had heard my shouting from the dining hall, took one look at my hand and confirmed – “Naomi, this is definitely a caterpillar.”
David went back to the source to find the little nasty. Three inches long, with hair that would make Rapunzel jealous, the beasty looked like some kind of porquipine – tumbleweed lovechild. Not cute.
Ok great, multiple experts consulted, diagnosis confirmed. Treatment?
“You’re not going to like this,” Tanita said, as she picked up the large rock I use to keep my door open. Tanita majors in physics, chemistry, and biology, and has medical aspirations, so naturally she was prepared to perform my surgery. Diane held my hand out and twisted it toward the light, while Tanita took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and screamed as Tanita took her rock and ran it up and down my hand, essentially ripping the barbs out along with the top layer or two of skin. A few moments later, my hand was a bit raw and a bit dirty, but totally free of caterpillar barbs.
Which brings us to Naomi’s law of things that sting: If it has fangs, spikes, or venom of any kind, it will find me and it will bite me. From ants, to spiders, mosquitoes, to bed bugs, and now caterpillars, no centimeter of my skin is safe from the things that inexplicably always seem to want to eat me. Ugh.
I’m sorry in advance. Or after the fact. I’m not sure which one makes more sense in this situation. Either way, there’s a ton of things that at one point or another, Stella expressly told me I should not do. I’m coming to the end of my time here in Rwanda (t-minus 11 weeks!) and I’ve been feeling reflective, which has inspired me to think about all the things I’ve done over the past two years that I maybe shouldn’t have done. #sorrymom
Left the house without sunscreen
Got dehydrated. Pretty much every day.
Forgot to take anti-malarial medication every day in year 1
Decided not to take anti-malarial at all in year 2
Skipped a shower (or two. Ok fine sometimes three. Whatever, we live in the middle of nowhere)
Delayed filing my absentee ballot, which prevented me from voting. Leave me alone, I live in a reliably blue state.
Talked to strange men
Walked outside barefoot
Wore leggings to work. Many, many times.
Got less than 8 hours of sleep. As in, I live with 525 teenagers, and I can count on two hands how many solid nights of sleep I’ve had in this place.
Ate french fries and ice cream for dinner
Told strangers where I come from
Told strangers where I live
Told strangers what hotel I was staying at
Left personal items unattended at the beach
Got into cars with strangers
Rode in the back of a truck
Rode in the back of a truck, while hitchhiking
Walked alone at night
Allowed my cellphone battery to die
Traveled without a cellphone
Spent money on expensive flights
Traveled to Malawi
Traveled to Tanzania
Traveled in Rwanda by myself
Got drunk in a foreign country
Ate strange fruits and vegetables from local markets
Ate strange fruits and vegetables from local markets without washing them first
Stayed in hostels
Failed to bring my own pillowcase to hostels
Failed to wear shoes in the shower
Bought only one of things, instead of two (Stella has a thing for buying things in pairs. Don’t ask.)
Failed to call home at least once a week
Went places by myself, without telling anyone else where I was going
Allowed someone else to wash my underwear
Used plates and silverware that were questionably hygienic
Drank tap water
Rode on motos
Ate bread on Passover (smite me, oh mighty Smiter!)
Went for a run by myself in the dark
Forgot to floss
Ignored my student loans (the half-hearted attempts to cover the accruing interest notwithstanding)
Exercised while injured
Failed to go to the doctor when I was clearly sick
Spent the night at a hospital in a foreign country
Spent the night at the hospital without calling anyone to come help me
Lost a lot of weight really fast, without going to the doctor to make sure there was no sinister underlying cause
Got attached to my life in Rwanda, chose not to remember that my time here is temporary, allowed myself to get overly emotionally invested in a group of people that I will have to leave come November
Part of my job includes making home visits over the vacations. While I was only required to visit half of my family (mama will visit the other half) visiting kiddos in their villages is a really cool way to travel up and down and all around the country so I set the ambitious goal of visiting all 18 of the girls in my family. Most of my journeys started from Nybugogo bus station. Nybugogo is downright terrifying. An intricately overwhelming beehive of activity, it makes Grand Central look like a local train station and Mahane Yehuda seem like a well organized grocery store. The second you walk through the entrance of Nybugogo, you’re surrounded by a crowd of young men who work for the different companies. Their major job responsibility seems to be to convince travelers by any means necessary to choose their company. They shout the names of different destinations and often try to push or pull you toward their kiosk. While extremely intimidating, this is also really helpful. With its dozens and dozens and dozens of busses and hundreds of people, the bus station is nearly impossible to navigate safely unless you already know exactly which kiosk you’re looking for and where it is. Since I don’t usually know where I’m going, I stand at the entrance of the station, do my best to be hyper aware of my surroundings, and wait for whichever lucky scout gets to me first. Then I’m led by the hand (or the shoulder, or the arm, and one time pulled by my purse) through the station, narrowly avoiding being run over by busses and people and motos. My helper will lead me to his company of choice and, unless I have some objection, he’ll help me buy the ticket to my destination. He’ll then take me to the bus, make sure that I have an acceptable seat, and tell the driver where I need to be dropped off. The minutes between the time I’m seated and the time we actually leave the station are filled with dozens of people who come up to knock on the windows of the bus. They sell drinks, snacks, headphones, clothing, jewelry, and just about anything else you can carry on your head- and where I come from that means pretty much everything. Somehow the bus pulls out of the station without hitting anyone and then I spend the next two or three hours (or four if I’m really lucky) hoping that I ended up on the right bus…
Ines lives in Butare, a city in the Southern Province, about two hours away from Kigali. Butare is often called the intellectual capital of Rwanda because it houses the University and the National Ethnographic Museum. It’s also home to Inzozi Nziza which was the first soft-serve ice cream shop in Rwanda. For all the cows and milk and heat in Rwanda, you’d think there would be more ice cream, but you’d be wrong. Ines picked me up from the bus station and we took a short walk to the museum where we looked at the exhibits and chatted about everything from traditional basket weaving to ancient rain coats to whether or not we would have enjoyed being the wife of a chief.Afterward we walked to get some deliciously creamy homemade ice cream and take selfies. On our walk to her home, I asked Ines to show me her favorite place in her city. She pointed to an indoor market- nothing special, just a grocery store and a bank and a few other small shops inside.
Ines why is this your favorite place?
Because when I was young my mother used to give me some money to walk here and buy bread. She would give me 1000 francs and the bread cost only 500 so I had 500 left over to buy some samosas or capati or whatever else I wanted.
I looked at her and laughed. Ines is confident, brilliant, hilarious,and full of spicy sassiness. I was not at all surprised to hear that her favorite place was actually a monument to her first experiences with responsibility and independence.
We walked to her home, shared snacks with her younger sister and enjoyed lunch with their mother. They wanted me to spend the night, but I explained that tomorrow I have to go visit another cousin, who lives in the north eastern most corner of Rwanda- a 3 hour drive from Kigali and at least 6 hours from the south western corner we were in. With hugs and smiles and prayers for my safe journey home, the girls put me on the bus and waved me on my way.
I’m not fully convinced Esther actually lives in Rwanda. Three and a half hours north east of Kigali in the small piece of Rwanda that separates Ugandan and Tanzania, lies the small town of Matimba, where Esther and her earnest joyfulness eagerly waited for me by the bus station. Matimba is literally a stone’s throw away from Uganda- just a measly 200 meters from Esther’s house. I brought my passport with me, just in case we tripped and fell out of Rwanda. I’d love to say I watched the landscape slowly change from city to the banana plantations to the dusty savannah that Esther lives in, but truth be told I fell solidly asleep for the entire bus ride and relied solely on the kindness of strangers to get me to my destination. You have to understand, Esther compulsively and completely takes care of me. She could compete with the most neurotic of Jewish mothers, from making sure I’ve eaten enough to sending me to bed if I look tired. Needless to say, Esther was utterly horrified at the prospect of her non-Kinyarwanda speaking cousins traveling to a remote and somewhat hard to find village on busses and motos. She demanded that I call her from the bus so she could talk to my driver and make sure he would keep an eye on me, and then she called me every hour so she would know when to send her friends to pick me up from the bus station. Through her persistent checking in, I made it to her house safe and sound. We had lunch, munched on homegrown sugar cane, and walked around the village to check out the new irrigation system her village had just installed – very exciting. We walked toward the Ugandan border but decided not to cross, so instead we waved to the Ugandan monkeys hanging out on the other side of the bridge, and I embarked on my long journey back to Kigali.
Tanita lives in Gikondo, which is a neighborhood of Kigali so she was easy to get to. A quick moto ride brought me into a dusty neighborhood where Tanita and her adorable little brother were waiting for me. She wanted me to have the ‘real experience of her daily life’ so we walked down to the corner store to buy beans, tomato paste, and charcoal. As soon as we got home, we got to work, chopping up onions and cooking the rice. While our sauce was thickening, we played with her little neighbors. I’m used to it by now- the big eyed awed expression of the little ones who don’t usually see white people, let alone actually get to play with them and touch their hair. One of the Village mottos is ‘don’t pay me back, just pay it forward’ so I asked Tanita, who’s a naturally talented teacher, if she and her brother had started teaching the little ones some English words. She answered that she hadn’t thought to do that, so we got right to work. Twenty minutes later, little Caleb knew the words for eyes, ears, mouth, and nose and not-so-little Tanita understood that even though she hasn’t yet graduated, she has incredible potential to be a change-maker and she can get started right on her own front steps.
Fiona and Annet
Fiona and Annet live in small villages in the Eastern Province, close to the Tanzania border. Neither of them speak very good English, so my visits were brief and full of selfies. Even though communicating wasn’t so easy, it was still really nice to see my girls and meet their guardians. We munched on cookies while I toured their homes, meeting their goats and chickens along the way. Plus, both girls got to feel like A-list celebrities as they paraded their Muzungu cousin though their villages so that’s always nice too.
Fiona & Siblings
Berthe lives in Gastato, a neighborhood of Kigali. A short moto ride led me to the bottom of a very steep hill, which Berthe and I climbed for about 20 minutes until we reached the dusty top. She explained that because she’s so far uphill, there’s no running water in her house, so instead they have to pay for water to be delivers each day – about 6 cents for a jerrycan of water. Berthe lives with her mother and four of her six siblings. The oldest two are half siblings who live in Burundi. Berthe herself spent most of her life in Burundi. Her father died when she was young, so she and two of her siblings were sent to live with aunts in Burundi in order to make life more affordable for her mom. When war broke out, she was sent back to Rwanda where she could safely remain in school. Each member of her family speaks a different combination of languages, from mom who grew up in Congo but now lives in Rwanda, to older brother and younger sister who grew up with Berthe in Burundi, to the young ones who have never lived outside of Rwanda but learn English in school. Their common denominator is Kinyarwanda, but Berthe admitted she often mixes in a little Kiburundi because the languages are so similar. When I asked Berthe what she enjoys doing on vacation she looked at me with her broad smile and sparkly eyes and said she loves sitting in her living room with all of her siblings, because until last year, she’s never been in the same room with all of them at the same time. “They make a lot of noise, Cousin”, she told me, “but it’s a good kind of noise. That’s why I am glad to be home- because I now have time to getto know my siblings.” She took me outside and said proudly “When I stand here, I can see all of Kigali.”As she pointed out each of the neighborhoods of the city, I couldn’t help but remember one of ASYV’s mottos – ‘if you see far you will go far’. Berthe, who fluently speaks five languages (English, Kinyarwanda, Kiburundi, Kiswahili, and French, in case you were wondering), can see incredibly far. “I want to write a book about my life,” she told me decisively, “but first I have to know the rest of my family.”
Diane and Diane
I have two Dianes in my family – we refer to them as Tall Diane or Small Diane. Small Diane lives in Kigali, so a short moto ride brought me to her modest house. Unfortunately, her Aunt wasn’t around when I came to visit, so instead we drank Fantas and watched a movie until it was time for me to move on to my next visit. Tall Diane lives in Nyamata, a village about an hour south of Kigali. Nyamata is home to an incredibly moving Genocide memorial so my visit to Diane needs more than a few sentences to describe. You can read all about it here.
Adelphine, Egidie, Theophile, and Delice
The day started in Kigali, where Mama Ernestine met me at the bus station. We hopped on a bus to the Eastern province of Rwamagana, just a stones throw away from the Village. We met Adelphine’s adorable grandma and had our first (of many) Fantas of the day. From there, we walked to Egidie’s house to meet her mom, have lunch, and enjoy Fanta number 2. A rainy bicycle ride took us to Theophile’s house where we were treated to lunch number two and Fanta number three – that’s three sodas and two full meals within about four hours. We had planned to go to Delice’s house, but the sudden downpour made that impossible sooo instead we got comfortable and cracked open a bottle of homemade Urwagwa and waited for the storm to pass. Urwagwa is a cider type drink made of fermented bananas and is very much a part of Rwandan culture. It’s extremely strong and drunk at room temperature. Theophile’s uncle had so much fun watching me drink it, that he insisted I take a liter home.
The next day, Mama met me at the Village and we traveled for about an hour to get to Delice’s house. Delice lives in a simple but clean hut with her mother and sisters – all of whom look identical with their big eyes, trim physiques, and matching hijabs. We shared a hot cup of tea and a piece of sweet bread and took a short walk around her village while Mama Ernestine listened to Delice’s mother share their family’s story, starting with their experience in the Genocide. Delice lives on the side of a beautiful hill and she took me through her favorite path. Neither Delice nor her family speak much English,dec so before long, Mama and I set off for a rainy journey home.
Ange and Delphine
Ange and Delphine live in the Eastern province, about halfway between Kigali and the Village. A quick bus ride and a treacherous moto trip brought me to Ange’s home. Her mother died when she was young, so now she lives with her maternal uncle, his wife, and their children. Her yard is filled with the cheep cheeping of baby chickens, and after greeting her three cows and having a light lunch of green bananas, we set out to find Delphine’s aunt’s house. Once we got there, we munched on sweet bananas and marveled at the resemblance between Delphine, her cousin, and her aunt. We took a short walk around the house, and I was sent home with a papaya one of their trees produced.
I had a ball with Hope’s family. She lives in Kigali with her mom, older brother, and two younger sisters. Her brother graduated from ASYV the year before she joined, and the whole family speaks fluent English, which meant that I was actually able to interact with everyone without needing translation. When I arrived, lunch was being prepared so the only thing to do was put on a wrap and get to slicing. About an hour later, we had created a bona fide feast! We sat around the table and had a meal that could compete with Thanksgiving, complete with profuse prayers for everyone’s health, safety, and success.
Annoncee lives in the village of Shorezo, about halfway between Kigali and Musanze, way up in the Northern Province. After a long walk up a steep hill, we arrived at the small mud hut she shares with her ancient and adorable grandparents. Annoncee ran to fetch her toddler cousins to say hello, which had the immediate effect of all three children violently bursting into tears of terror. I pacified them by pulling out my phone and using my camera to show them their reflections. Annoncee’s grandparents also wanted a look and the expressions on their elderly faces told me that its been quite a long time since they last had an opportunity to see their own reflections. You could almost hear the thoughts running through their minds – ‘goodness I’m getting old, is that what I look like now?’ On my walk back down the hill, we passed Annoncee’s uncle, who, she explained, provides her the money she needs to get back and forth to school. As we shook hands, I took a moment to appreciate all of the people who barely have enough to sustain themselves, yet come together to contribute what little they have in order to support the younger members of their families.
Liliose and Ratifa
Liliose and Ratifa live in North bumblefuck, just outside of Musanze in the Northern Province. My friend Daniel was visiting over vacation, so we combined the trip to the girls’ houses with a hike up Mount Bisoke and a trip to Lake Kivu. We decided to rent a car rather than dealing with busses, which was a great call considering how hard it was to get to Liliose’s home. 40 minutes up a dirt path of volcanic rock, and we found ourselves in a tiny village with a breathtaking view of Lake Ruhondo.
Liliose lost both her parents in a terrible accident about 11 years ago, so she lives with four of her five siblings. The eldest sister is married and lives in Musanze, about an hour away by car, but probably closer by moto, since they handle the treacherous dirt paths much more easily than our car did. Liliose is the youngest student in our family, so it was fun to meet her younger sisters. She has only one brother, whose about 8 years older than she is and excitedly told us all about his post-high school volunteer work that was filling his time while he waits for news about university admissions. They still live in the same house their parents chose before their deaths, and incredibly all 6 of the siblings speak fluent English. We shared some pineapple, snapped a selfie, and set off for Ratifa’s house. We tucked Liliose into the backseat and I was hit with an overwhelming wave of protective instinct as I struggled with her seat belt buckle.
We drove down the dust path, through Musanze, and out the other side to reach Ratifa’s house. With no surviving parents, Ratifa lives with a guardian who took her and another orphan into his home. He’s a kind man who works for the hospital and spent the entirety of our visit thanking me profusely for the work we do for vulnerable children. While he’s right, the work we do is difficult, critical, and deeply impactful, the time we spend supporting our student pales in comparison to the sacrifices and impossible decisions their guardians have had to make on their behalves.
Having met and shared smiles with all of my girls’ families I’m truly grateful for the people who will protect them, feed and clothe them, and guide them once my time in their country comes to an end. Though saying goodbye to my Rwandan cousins will be impossibly hard, that’s what I’ll have to do in just a few short months and it’s incredibly reassuring that every one of my girls has at least one person in their lives who will be there to take care of them once I’m gone.
Malawi, a Chichewa word which loosely translates to “Land of Extremely Long and Sweaty Bus Rides” hosted two travelers for their term break. This is their story.
The travelers began their journey with a day in the capital city, Lilongwe. They explored the markets and marveled at the strange fruits and vegetables they encountered there. They tasted a local dish, nsima (prounounce see-ma), which is made of maize flour and is a staple in Malawian cuisine. After a day in the city (there’s really not much to do there) the travelers embarked on a six-hour bus ride from Lilongwe to Cape Maclear.
Cape Maclear was a paradise the likes of which the travelers had not experienced in quite some time! They stayed at a charming and beautiful lodge along the shores of Lake Malawi. They spent their days gorging on delicious food, splashing in the cool waters of the lake, and buying souvenirs for their friends and families. They took a boat ride out to the various islands of the lake, they fed fish-eagles, watched monkeys play in the treetops that line the shore, and snorkeled with the brightly colored cichlids. In the evenings, they feasted on freshly caught fish and homemade smoothies. The lake was a perfect place for the two travelers to rest and reflect.
After three days though, the travelers grew restless. What else is there to see in this country, they wondered? With that, they took a seven-hour bus ride to the Zomba Plateau, a region in the south. They stayed at a truly terrible hotel, ate two of the worst meals in recent history, and took off for a hiking adventure, desperate to redeem their time in the area.
Oh! Were the travelers treated to such beauty! On the plateau, they discovered vendors selling sweet berries, which the travelers gobbled up until their stomachs protested. With berries in hand, the travelers spent two butterfly- waterfall- wildflower filled days exploring the plateau and enjoying a break from the heat. They hiked over boulders, through fields, and under pine trees.
On the second day they followed a guide, who along with extensive knowledge about the plateau and the country, also shared a love for food. The travelers were so excited! They wanted to learn more about cooking nsima and other local foods, and they wanted to introduce new recipes to their friend. One thing led to another and it was decided that the travelers would join their new friend and his girlfriend at their home to share a meal.
As soon as the travelers came down from the mountain, they rushed to the market. What fun they had, picking out the ingredients they would need for their evening! They gathered everything they needed and prepared themselves for their dinner. Within two minutes of arriving at the modest but beautiful home, the travelers were outfitted for meal preparations, and they began washing and chopping and roasting. Three hours were spent together, with the four friends cooking and teaching and learning. Such a feast they created! The travelers showed their friends how to cook shakshuka and babaganoush and they learned how to make nsima and banana cake. The travelers were giddy with excitement! They couldn’t wait to try these new recipes back in Rwanda. The four friends sat together and ate and ate and ate until they thought they would burst! They shared stories and laughs and they appreciated the rare joy that such a serendipitous evening creates. When they parted with smiles on their faces, the four friends knew what a special moment they had shared. Though the travelers knew they would not likely meet these friends again, they knew the memory of the evening would remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Having thoroughly explored Lake Malawi and the Zomba Plateau, the two travelers decided to return to the city to prepare themselves for the long journey home. They opted to split the ten-hour travel into two parts, so they wouldn’t have to spend so long on the bus. Little did the two travelers know what was in store for them….
They boarded their bus early in the morning. The bus was relatively empty, but this didn’t concern the travelers. Two hours later, they were still sitting in exactly the same spot. Tired and frustrated, the travelers tried to investigate what was going on. As it turns out, the driver had no intention of moving the bus until it was so full that the last several passengers would have to stand! The travelers were flabbergasted – in their home country of Rwanda, this has never happened. They decided to take action. Several moments of juggling later, and the travelers were doing their best to attract other passengers to their bus. Finally, after another hour, the bus began its journey.
Two hours later, the travelers were informed that they needed to transfer busses. With a final kick in the backside, the travelers sent their bus on its way. They demanded front seats on their next bus and settled in for four more hours on the road. By the time they reached their destination, they had just enough time to eat dinner and dip their toes in the water before falling deeply, deeply asleep.
The next morning, the travelers boarded their very last Malawian bus. They arrived back in the city and stopped by the market one last time to fill up on roasted sweet potatoes, fresh guavas, and one final serving of nsima. The next day, having done their part for the Malawian local economy and sufficiently worked on their tans, the two travelers boarded their plane and returned home, rested and ready for their work to resume.
Darren and I have just come home from the market with all kinds of yummy vegges and we’ve just discovered that our favorite Asian restaurant sells homemade tofu! We decide that we need a few more things before we can cook dinner, so we walk to our local supermarket. As we go through the aisles looking for soy sauce and ginger, we walk past the granola, chocolate, juice boxes, fish food, potato chips….hold up. Rewind. Fish food?!
You must understand, I’ve been wanting a fish for the library for over a year. I tried to bring one back with me but that was a no-go. The conversation went something like this:
Hello, thank you for calling Qatar Airlines, how can I help you?
Hi, yes, I’m flying to Rwanda and I’m wondering if it’s possible to bring a fish in my carryon.
I’m sorry, a what?
A fish! I want to bring a goldfish with me. Is that allowed?
Ma’am no one has ever asked me that before. I’m going to have to check with my supervisor…….No ma’am I’m sorry, fish are strictly banned from carry-on luggage.
Womp. I’ve searched high and low all over Kigali, but pet stores aren’t really a thing here and it’s really hard to try to explain to people that you want to buy a fish that is still alive. I’ve checked all the expat blogs and asked all the kiddos, but no one seemed to know anywhere this librarian might be able to buy a small colorful aquatic creature. One might say I’d given up.
Then I spotted the fish food. If there is fish food for sale, that must mean someone is buying it to feed a fish! Who are these people? Where do their fish come from? And what would I have to do to find one of these people and convince them to give me one of their fish?!
I grab the container and walk up to the cashier. “HI. Where is the animal that goes with this?”
She gave me one of the most confused looks I’ve gotten in a long while, and I teach English as a second language, so that’s really saying something. The cashier has no idea, but luckily another customer does. He starts trying to explain to me where to go until we decide that the directions are way too complicated for me to remember. I ask him to write down how to get to the place so that I can show the directions to a moto driver. He agrees, writes a few sentences in Kinyarwanda, and tells us we should probably go another day, because it’s getting dark and they’re probably closed now. A few eyelash flutters from me and one truly spectacular eye-roll from Darren and it’s decided: we will search for my fish tomorrow morning.
The next morning, armed with my little note, we hail motos and begin our fish-venture. We drive through a part of town that I don’t usually spend time in and after a few turns and dirt roads, I begin to wonder if maybe kind stranger has arranged for us to be dropped off at some kind of kidnapping hotspot. Finally, we see a sign next to a seemingly abandoned lot that says “ALPHA CHOICE, frozen fish, frozen chicken”.
Uh oh. I do not want a frozen fish. The moto driver gives me a look and says, “I think they’re out of business,” but Darren and I decided to walk around anyway. We discover the storefront (not closed – thank goodness) and apprehensively approach the men unloading boxes of frozen fish.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small tank inside. YES! The nice man behind the counter does in fact have several goldfish that he’s willing to sell me. 5000 francs later, and I’m holding my new little friend.
Fast forward thirty minutes, and I have a nice little jar that will serve as a tank and of course I’ve gone back for the container of fish food that started it all. Along the way, I discover that if you want people to look at you like you’ve lost your mind, simply walk through Kigali holding a goldfish in a plastic bag. That should do the trick.
After two pretty treacherous moto rides and an hour on the bus, Cousin the Fish arrived safely to the Library. His little tank is all set up, and now the only thing left to do is watch at the kiddos come in to visit!
“MY STUDENTS!” Tanita screams, as she leaps up from the couch. I look down at my phone and see that it’s 5:59, and Tanita is about to be late for her 6 pm tutoring session. It’s Sunday evening and, like the vast majority of the students, me and my girls have been hanging out and enjoying the last few moments of the weekend before the week starts back up again. We’re watching a movie (The Notebook, because 16 year olds are 16 year olds everywhere you go) which Tanita has been dying to see ever since she devoured the book last year. She can’t stay to watch the end though, because her students are waiting for her.
Tanita is one of my 18 girls, now in her second year. She’s completely fluent in English (and French, and of course her native language, Kinyarwanda, and she’s in the process of learning Hebrew too) and she spends a lot of time thinking about her peers who are less linguistically advanced than she is. One of the major philosophies of the Village is that students should not spend their time thanking us – the educators, donors, or Village founders and leaders. Rather, our students are encouraged to use their skills to pay it forward, thus increasing the impact on the community. Tanita, whose talents, skills, and abilities can – and have, on several occasions – brought crowds to awed appreciation, has the potential to create breathtaking ripples of impact once she figures out how she’ll pay it forward.
She’s already begun though, with our first- year students. She works with Patrick, my current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who’s now in his fourth and final year at ASYV. Last year, Patrick started tutoring the first-year students – Tanita’s classmates – in English. He and Tanita became good friends through the Debate Team and when Patrick realized his schedule this year would be too difficult to maintain, he enlisted Tanita to pick up the tutoring baton. Pick it up she did, and now she, usually along with Patrick, and one or two occasional others, runs hour-long tutoring sessions three or four times a week.
I check in with Tanita sometimes to update her on what I’m teaching in class. I give her copies of classwork, tell her when my students have homework, and help her find resources whenever she asks. The rest is up to her. She schedules classes, takes attendance, and scolds students who miss class or come late. Yesterday she came to me asking for (read: demanding) printed lyrics to songs, as well as downloaded mp3 files of the songs, a flash drive to store the files on, and the Library speakers. Why? Because she wants to work on pronunciation this week and the best way to teach vocabulary and pronunciation and not bore the kids to death is to teach them a song. She’s a genius.
Back to Sunday. It’s now 6:30ish and my movie has ended. I’m walking home and I pass a building where I can hear a group of students singing. I sneak a look through the window and sure enough, there she is. My 16-year-old tutor, running a classroom of about 15 students, more or less her own age. She’s singing at the top of her voice, while the other students are hunched over the lyrics, doing their best to mimic her pronunciation. I spend about thirty seconds trying to decide if my presence will be distracting, and then I take a step into the room so I can enjoy them a bit more comfortably. Tanita catches me watching her and just smiles as she continues – she used to me coming over to watch kids do their thing, so she doesn’t falter when I invade her space uninvited. Her students smile a little self-consciously, but they know they’re being watched so they continue on attentively. Patrick sees me in the doorway and he comes over to say hi.
“This is amazing Patrick! I’m so proud of what you’ve started! I can’t believe all these kids are here on a Sunday afternoon.”
“I know! You can’t even understand,” he says, with his big eyes smiling the sheepish smile of a teenage boy whose been caught doing good.
“Can’t understand what?”
“You just can’t even understand how amazing they are! They’re all just such incredible students!” he responds.
“Oh Patrick,” I laugh, as I start to head back home, “I think I understand just fine.”
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve fallen soundly and deeply asleep against the window of the bus. I’m woken by a gentle tap, tap, tap on my shoulder. “Sister,” he says, “This is where you need to get off. Have a safe journey.”
Zipping though the city on the back of a moto. HONK HONK. Another driver motions to mine that we should pull over. He shouts something at us in Kinyarwanda as he flies by, something that causes my driver to turn around and look at me. What’s happening? My driver looks down at me and pulls my legs further up on the foot pedals so I’m more secure. We don’t pull back into traffic until he’s satisfied I’m sitting as safely as possible.
We’re at the market, eyeing a bundle of fresh mint leaves. We’ve never bought these before so we don’t know what a reasonable price should be, but we know we’re definitely being overcharged when the vendor says 700 francs. We haggle, and bring him down to 500. Just when we’re about to pay, a voice whispers in my ear.
“Don’t pay a franc over 200,” the voice says with a wink. I look up and see the vendor from the next stall has come over to interfere with the transaction. Thank you, we say to him, as we insist on the lower price. The vendor rolls his eyes and accepts our 200 francs, while his neighbor returns cackling to his own stand.
The bus pulls over to let the young mother get off. She’s struggling with two bags and a small baby. She can’t manage the baby and the bags and we can see panic and frustration rising in her face. Like a well oiled machine, the people sitting closest to her spring into action. A split second later, the baby has been taken out of her arms and passed over to me, the closest passenger with two empty hands. Her bags are lifted out of the bus and a hand is offered to help her step over the other passengers and their various belongings. She steps off the bus, adjusts her bags, and looks up for her child, who is being gently and carefully passed through a window into her waiting arms.
It’s late at night and I’m on my way back to the Village. I’ve already made arrangements to make sure there will be a moto waiting for me so I don’t have to stand alone at the station. I step off the bus and hear the familiar beep-beep of a moto. He takes one look at my short sleeve t-shirt and hands me a jacket to wear before we take off into the darkness.
I’m lying in a hospital bed with a fever of 102. I’m asleep and awake at the same time and am suddenly aware of gentle hands smoothing my blankets. I open my eyes and discover that the mama from the next bed has come over to tuck me in. She brushes the hair out of my face and readjusts my pillow. A short while later, the young man she came in with comes to check on me.
I heard the nurses say that you don’t have a caretaker with you – is that true?
Yes, but I’m fine.
You? You are not fine. Look at you. You are definitely not fine. But that’s ok because I’m here now and I’ll take care of you even though you think you are fine.
We’re traveling through a busy city. The bus pulls into an unfamiliar station and I look up just in time to notice the man sitting next to my sleeping friend reach his arm across her body. I’m immediately alert and tense until I realize he’s just closing the window she’s resting against. He notices me watching him and says simply, “Someone might reach in and steal her phone.”
We’re not lost, not yet anyway. We’re trying to explain to our moto drivers where we need to go, but it’s a bit outside the city and all we have is a simple map. No major landmark, no other way to explain where we need to go. We’ve never been there before, so we can’t even direct the drivers on the way. As we’re trying to explain, more and more drivers approach. They discuss, they debate, they’re still unsure of where we need to go. A well-dressed man sees the commotion and comes over to investigate. His English is good and we explain where we’re trying to go. He knows the place and quickly explains to our drivers how to get us there. Thank you, we say, thank you so much.
Don’t thank me, he says to us. This is what we do. We take care of our families, we take care of our neighbors, and we take care of our guests. This is just what we do.
6:45 – arrive at school, observe welcoming ceremony for the official start of Term 1
7:15 – mobilize the Ministers to help get our first year students to their classrooms and help distribute school supplies. Watch with obscene pride as Ministers organize themselves, anticipate the needs of the people around them, and work together to meet those needs and solve problems in real time
9:15 – teach
10:00 – solve library-related problems
10:55 – teach
12:30 – lunch
1:30 – walk back up the hill to school
2:15 – teach
2:55 – walk home from school, stop in the Dining Hall to take cover from the pouring rain
3:30 – turn off phone, yoga for 1 hour
5:00 – meet student in Library to work on an application for an incredible opportunity that’s due….tonight
6:53 – finish application (it’s perfect! Go us!)
7:00 – stare in disbelief as the computer we are using logs out of the student’s account and won’t let us log back in because it’s past 7 pm
7:01 – call the tech guy and try to problem solve
7:02 – lots of deep breaths
7:03 – accept that there is nothing we can do to log in to the student’s account until tomorrow morning
7:04 – go to dinner
8:00 – meet student to rewrite entire application – this time on my computer where nothing unexpected or unsolvable is likely to happen
8: 44 – finish application (thank God)
8:45 – submit application
8: 47 – have critical conversation with student about how wonderful she is, how great it will be if she wins, and that she should manage her expectations so she won’t be crushed if she isn’t accepted
8:50 – organize one last stack of books, glance over lesson plans for tomorrow, realize that I have literally not stopped moving since 5:30 in the morning. Reflect on how every second of this day was completely jam packed with productive and enjoyable work. Think about all the perfect faces I saw today, all the hugs and high-fives I gave and received, all the little moments of love in between the tasks of the day. Decide that I’ve done enough for one day, and that I should go to sleep, so I can do it all again tomorrow.
It’s 6 AM. I have dragged myself out of my warm and comfortable bed, and somehow convinced myself to get my workout in before my 9 AM meeting. I grab my yoga mat and feel a strange, fuzzy sensation. That’s annoying, I think. I hate when there are spider webs on my mat.
OUCH. The damn thing is still on my mat and it’s BITING me. I do the only rational thing I can think of and I throw my most beloved possession across the room, toward the open front door. Only then, do I see that my beautiful, precious, expensive yoga mat is black and fuzzy and MOVING.
Ants. Hundreds of thousands of ANTS have made their way into my house.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
A horrible, black, line, three inches wide and ungodly long is winding its way from the back door of our house, through the kitchen, into the living room, and up onto the shelf where we keep our snacks and dishes. The target? The jars of peanut butter we bought last weekend in Kigali. I stifle a scream as I remind myself that my two roommates are blissfully asleep and don’t need to wake up to shrieking at 6 o’clock in the morning. It takes me a solid thirty seconds of panicked staring to figure out what to do.
Step 1: call for back-up. Let me remind you, the sun has barely come up and everyone rational is still fast asleep. Darren is a morning exerciser like me, so I call him and by the grace of God, he’s awake.
Step 2: remove the source. Darren channels his inner Bear Grylls, covers his hands with a towel, grabs the offending jars of peanut butter, and runs out of the house. This process is repeated several times until any container with even a small trace of food has been taken out of the house. We’ll deal with them later.
Step 3: remove the intruders. We each grab brooms and take a deep breath. We know that the second we disrupt the neat little line the ants are following they are going to lose their minds and start biting. On the count of three, we go for it. Darren attacks the line on the ground, and I’m swatting the ants off the shelf. We figure out where they’re coming in from and try to prevent any more from coming in.
Step 4: don’t get bit. This fails miserably, and we spend the next hour trying not wake up my two sleeping roommates with our gasps of pain as the little shits nip at our hands and feet.
Step 5: manipulate the monsters. As we’re sweeping the ants out of the house, we realize that they just keep reorganizing themselves toward the shelf in the living room. We decide to try redirecting the line outside of the house – make the ants think it’s their idea to march their nasty selves out of my house. We debate putting food on the floor to guide them out, but decide against it, in case we attract more ants from the diaspora of the house.
Step 6: assess the damage. Slowly but surely, the number of ants is decreasing. Just when we’re feeling good about our progress, I notice a line of ants making their way out of the living room and into MC’s bedroom. Up until now, Darren and I have been whispering and trying not to wake the girls, but the last thing I want is for MC to wake up, covered in ants. We wake her up and sure enough, the ants are working their way around the perimeter of her room. Grab another broom, sweep them out. By now, the ants have definitely re-formed their line and are marching themselves out of the house. All we have to do now is wait for them to fall into line and sweep up the stragglers. Check the bathrooms, sweep the ants into the shower, turn on the water, wash them down the drain.
Step 7: make ant related puns. Ant-pocolpyse. Ant-imatter. Ant-ithesis. Unwelcome ten-ants. Ain’t I glad I woke up in Rwanda this morning? Not particularly, no.
Step 8: post-traumatic-ant-disorder. The ants are most cleared out, its 7 AM. Everyone is solidly awake and there are thousands of ant carcasses on the front and back porches of my house. Not exactly the most yogic environment there ever was, but I’ve lost an hour of my morning, and oh my god, do I need some namaste right now. As we take in the carnage, we decide that the crisis has been handled and the only thing left to do is go about our days, as if we hadn’t spent the morning battling tiny monsters to protect our livelihoods and everything we hold dear.
Never again will I tease a child about having ants in their pants. We don’t joke about such things anymore.