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Beautiful Women Hurt More Than Murder

As someone who has always been interested in people, it is little wonder I have also been unable to lay to rest my wanderlust. When I have spoken about countries I have wanted to visit or have visited, I have occasionally gotten the curious: “Why there?” The most organic answer I have always been able to come up with is: “Well, because there are people there.” Aside from eating my way through the region, my main reason for visiting most countries is to talk (as much as my limited knowledge of their local language allows) to people who likely had different experiences than my own, but essentially wanted the same things for themselves and their loved ones as I did.

This relocation to Rwanda is unique in that for the first time, I will be in a country for an extended period of time and I have come here with no knowledge of or addiction to its native cuisine. So, my desire to connect with people, to engage in sincere dialogue with them is less likely to take a back seat to eating my way across this lovely country like a ravenous dog.

Ironically, the one topic in which most would want to engage is officially off limits here in Rwanda.

For those of you who find it hard not to block out images of Don Cheadle defending his family and neighbors from machete-wielding rebels whenever you read the word Rwanda, you should know that if you visit here, talking about the genocide is taboo. Calling the genocide a war is taboo. Using words like Hutu and Tutsi is downright offensive. The official party line is the genocide happened two decades ago. We are no longer tribes; We are RWANDANS. We have rebuilt and will continue to do so. We remember and mourn as a nation during April, when there are memorials and ceremonies. Then, we promptly move on.

I have no burning desire to force potential friends to relive their pain just to satisfy my own curiosity, but it strikes me as odd that a defining moment in the history of a country that happens to have been the catalyst to the great country it is now becoming can not be spoken of in polite conversation. Nevertheless, I follow the protocol that has been laid out to me by my employer and the many blogs I have read since accepting this position. Do. Not. Bring. Up. The. Genocide. Keep your theories and opinions about who is to blame and the ramifications of the tragedy to yourself, bsese.

I am not thinking about the genocide or Don Cheadle when I call Eric, the taxi driver who my boss assured me would give me a good price to take me downtown. I am only thinking about an iron. Although I unpacked my suitcases quite some time ago, I have yet to actually iron any of the wrinkled dresses haphazardly thrown onto hangers in my closet. I need an iron and likely an ironing board. And also, a mop, which means I should get a broom. Which ultimately means I need a ride downtown and back.

Eric is such a friendly man. He not only drives me to T-2000, Kigali’s version of Dollar General, but he also helps me shop. When my few poorly pronounced phrases in Kinyarwanda do not result in any of the workers helping me find what I am looking for, he says things to them and then items that I need magically appear. Eric even encourages me to pursue my insane goal of meeting President Kagame by randomly showing up to his office one day and introducing myself. (“You should make an appointment first. He is a nice man. You might not get arrested.”) Eric even asks me how much certain items I am purchasing would cost in America, especially “New York City where you come from. I know it is quite expensive.”

Perhaps it is because our errand has turned into a friendly getting-to-know-you chat that I forget a key piece of advice new teachers were given during our recent orientation. “Be careful asking people about their families,” an Ex-Pat who has been here for over five years cautioned. “You could involuntarily bring up some horrific memory that the person may have preferred to stay buried.”

At some point in our shopping spree, Eric asks me why I chose to come to Rwanda. After I explain my reason for relocating, I ask him what seems like the most logical follow up question: “Are you originally from here or are you an Ex-Pat like me, too.” When he answers that he is originally from Rwanda, but spent some of his childhood in South Africa, I logically reply, “Oh, is your family still living in South Africa or have they managed to move back to Rwanda like you?”

The nonchalant ease in which Eric responds has a bizarre way of alerting me that I may have caused my first international incident.

“My family was murdered in 1994.”

There is no discernible change in Eric’s disposition. He is neither visibly angry nor does he appear to be on the verge of an emotional meltdown. He reveals he is alone in this world after his entire family was killed during a three-month massacre just as casually as he revealed the difficulty he has with saving money because he has a “huge problem” that comes in the form of beautiful women who expect beautiful things.

I quickly decide I will not turn Eric’s tragedy into my own campaign of guilt and pity. I do not get flustered and try to convince him that I am really a good person who does not intend to open wounds that have never fully healed. I simply say to him: “That sounds incredibly hard. I am sorry you loss your family and I apologize if I have made you think about something that you’d rather forget.”

Somehow, those words grant me a brief entry into the post-genocide pain of Rwandans who I am told don’t share much with the Ex-Pats who have invaded their country these last 20 years. “It used to be hard,” Eric muses, his disposition still remaining calm, assured. “I am sure you wonder how someone like me – someone who lost his mother and father at the age of 7 is not crazy. And you should know that some people are, by the way. Some might be yelling at you right now and just tell you to shut up.” Eric goes on to explain that he doesn’t see the sense in falling apart. He has had a good life. His life now is better than some of his friends who were already living overseas when the chaos started not so long ago.

“I drive a Mercedes and make a good living here in my country,” he tells me proudly. His chest protrudes at least 3 inches as he pronounces, “One day soon, I will buy a plot of land and build a house.”

“Why, aren’t you fancy,” I tease him. “I won’t be able to afford you soon.”

He chuckles and assures me, “You still have some time to get good prices with me. It will take me two more years to save before I have enough.”

I remember the problem he shared with me earlier. “Well, if you don’t do something about this dating beautiful women business, it might take you a bit longer.”

And THIS is when Eric looks truly beleaguered. Tired. Worn down even.

“I know,” he sighs. “But, it is hard. These women in Kigali nowadays…”

Then, his voice trails off and I see on his face the universal look of every man every where remembering the beautiful women they have captured as well as the ones they couldn’t convince to stay. I do not need an orientation to tell me I should leave well enough alone.

Much to my relief, the cashier finally summons Eric and me to the register.

Electricity is a Real, Live Thing

My father was one of those people who adamantly conserved energy. Lights were turned off sometimes while children were in their bedrooms reading. “Costs too much damn money,” he would bulk. “Read during the daytime.” Nowadays such strict conservation is generally upheld by new millennium hippies who have become cognizant of Earth’s depleting resources and think it only logical to curtail the culture of mindless consumption. For children of people like my father, however, the ideal to conserve has always been more linked to saving money than saving humanity.

I have been in Kigali, Rwanda for less than a week and have found the link between conservation and cost has been all the more clear to me than it has been in the past. Many modern day necessities are pay as you go. Electricity is one of those things. Outside my apartment is a meter that very clearly shows numerically how much electricity “lives” here. On my first day here the meter read 2950. (I don’t know what the unit of measurement is, but it seemed like a whole lot of electricity.) I was told to simply monitor the meter and when it gets low, head down to almost any grocery store and buy more electricity. If I allowed the meter to make it to zero, I would be in the dark. “I usually take a photo of the code here on the meter, show it to the clerk and buy more units,” my boss explained to me after he had gotten me settled into the place. “The clerk will give you a code to plug into the meter, which will immediately reflect how much more electricity you now have.”

It is not unusual for westerners to monitor their electricity. Most people can relate to getting an electric bill in the mail that seemed exorbitant and immediately adapting how often they used air conditioning or buying more energy-efficient light bulbs. (Or turning off the lights on their nerdy child while she read her favorite book.) However, SEEING the visual representation of this suddenly animate object right in front of you puts this idea of smart consumption in hard to ignore reality.

Today, my meter dipped into the 1900s.

It has only been three days. Two of those days, I was in the apartment alone awaiting the arrival of my colleagues who will be teaching with me this school year. I had been very conscientious of the meter. Suddenly, leaving the kitchen light on even when I walked back to my bedroom for a few minutes seemed not so smart. Each day, as I left the apartment, I gave the meter a quick look to gage how much electricity I used daily. It was not like getting a monthly utility bill, when the damage had already been done. Here, in front of me was a daily reminder that every single lighted room, every single charged cell phone, chipped away at what I had imagined as an invisible privilege that simply existed somewhere in a magical fairy land.

My roommates ate up my electricity. They are nice ladies and I enjoy talking to them, but my meter was still in the 2000s before they arrived with their insatiable need for illuminated meals and immediately dry hair.

Cellular service is also pay as you go. I gave an amused Rwandan at the the cell phone place what felt like a whole lot of money (but, once I did the Math was really only about 16 American dollars) and bought what should have been a lot of cell phone service. I was told I got voice and data. And I could again monitor the usage as I went. Once the money ran out, I would have no phone service until I came back in the store and bought more.

It is funny how I no longer have an obsessive need to check Facebook several times an hour. How insignificant it seems to read and respond to every single email that comes to my phone within minutes of its arrival.

Do I really need to send this text?

Do I really need to post this photo?

Do I really need to google “What happened to K.C. from Jodeci?”

Do I need to even have the data feature on my phone turned on all day?

These are questions I find myself asking much more frequently. In a sense, I have turned the beginning of my new life into a game. How long can I stretch out this electricity? Can I make 1900 units last TWO ENTIRE WEEKS? Can I ride out these 16 bucks of cell service until the end of the month?

“Back in the 80s,” my boss mused, “they had this thing where every family got one 40 watt light bulb for an allotted amount of time. They were expected to screw it in whenever they needed it in different rooms and if it didn’t last until the next time they were given their light bulb, then…oh well…”

My boss is a British Canadian who, although he has been the director of several international schools in African countries, has only been in Rwanda for a year. Who knows how much truth there is to his one light bulb story. It sounds like an urban legend if I ever heard one. I thought for a moment about goggling it, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth my data usage. And the “internet stick” that someone loaned me for my laptop only has a week’s worth of internet on it. I am confident I can stretch it out to at least a week and a half.

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