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.
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!
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.
I haven’t encountered any snowmen named Olaf in Rwanda so far, but let me tell you there are plenty of warm hugs! From the moment we stepped out of the Kigali airport, we were literally embraced by Rwanda. After showing our proof of yellow fever vaccine and receiving our tourists visas we walked straight into the arms of Mable and Peace, two ASYV staff members who could not have been more excited to see us. We loaded up our massive bags into the van (all of our luggage made it in one piece by the way – Taylor was right! Good people, good karma!) and drive to our hotel in Kigali.
The next morning, we awoke to what I can only describe as the most enchanting scene Disney has ever imagined. The sun streamed into our windows and we were able to see the misty hills of Kigali and beyond. In true Disney form, the birdsong accompanies the sleepy sounds of the city emerging from its slumber. This is nothing like the awful pigeons and crows who shout New Yorkers awake through honking horns and gates being aggressively unlocked, but rather a gentler soundtrack of doors being opened as men, women, and children walk out of their homes and into their days. The only thing that sets our morning apart from Cinderella’s is that she probably slept in past 4:30 am. Gotta love that jet lag.
Back to the hugs. After a delicious breakfast of melon, mango, pineapple, passion fruit, something called a tree tomato, and the cutest banana I’ve ever eaten, Mable and Peace met us at the hotel, with ASYV students Modeste, Ruthie, Angel, and Mitchell. Rwandans greet each other with a two-armed hug and then a quick handshake, so after hugs all around, we got right down to the business of getting to know one another. The students spoke nearly-impeccable English but we had relatively surface level conversations until Ruthie challenged me to sing something. After lots of encouraging, I treated everybody to an off-key rendition of the number song we had learned during orientation. Then I challenged Ruthie to sing something she could teach me, and in a beautiful voice she sang a lovely song about peace, love, and happiness. Little did she know, we had already learned this simple but lovely song, and the cousins excitedly joined in. It was a wonderful moment of connection, and we spent the rest of the day singing and building the foundations of what I’m sure will be meaningful relationships. For those of you familiar with the theory of the Five Love Languages, it’s easy to see that the entire country of Rwanda probably identifies as ‘physical touch’. All day long, we are either hugging, holding hands, touching arms, patting heads, playing with hair, and generally disregarding the American idea of having a ‘personal bubble’.
Singing with Taylor, Ruthie, Robyn, and Jordan. Amahoro, Ibishimo, Umunezero. Bihorabiri Mumutima Wanjye (Peacem Happiness, Joy, they will be in my heart)
The past few days have been relatively slow-paced. We have driven through Kigali and seen the colorful fabrics the world has come to expect from Africa. We’ve noticed that there are no yellow lights, rather the green and red lights count down, so drivers know exactly how long they have to make it across the intersection. There are few crosswalks here; instead pedestrians wait for a lull in traffic and boldly cross a busy road. We’ve taken tours of markets and stores, and one place that could easily be described as the Walmart of Rwanda. We were excited to see some brands that we recognized, although no one is excited to pay $10 for a bottle of Garnier shampoo. We exchanged our dollars into Rwandan Francs, and with an exchange rate of 770 Francs to the dollar, we each received a hilariously large brick of bills. We have been using Mable, Peace, and our driver Narcisse as our personal Kinyarwandan tutors, and the only word I would use to describe our approach to learning the language is ‘aggressive’. We take notes, we repeat making sounds foreign to our English-speaking tongues, and we practice our new phrases with every local we can find. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was organizing our new learning by nouns, verbs, adjectives, and obviously I’m also color-coding the word parts so we can master the grammar. Unlike most other languages I’ve experienced, Kinyarwandan words are conjugated in the beginning of the word, rather than the end. Also, ‘ohyeah’ means no in Kinyarwandan, so that’s going to lead to some serious confusion this year I’m sure.
Throughout all the learning and eating and observing and meeting our ASYV leadership (otherwise known as our new extended family) our little group of cousins is getting more and more excited to move into the village and get down to the work we signed up for. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which was an experience that demands reflection before it can be shared, but suffice it to say that we now have a better understanding of the context in which present day Rwandans create their lives and endure their challenges. We are beginning to learn who our students are and what they will need from us and in true Rwandan fashion, I’m sure it will all begin with the warmest of hugs.