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Real Talk: On Being Black American in Africa

When you are Black and American, you spend a great deal of your life trying to figure out how patriotic you realistically can be when your country at best, tolerates you and at worst, actively tries to kill you. It can become a cliché in the 21st century for youngish, educated Black Americans to ceremoniously announce a sojourn to the “motherland” to reconnect to their roots. I have often found great pleasure in mocking these over-the-counter Africans who buy up all the cowrie shells and shea butter from the 116th Street market in Harlem, get on a plane to Ghana and begin kissing its dusty pavements proclaiming, “I am home.” I understand the sentiment; to be considered a nuisance by the country your ancestors built for free almost forces you to search for a connection to the homeland you have vaguely become familiar with through poetry readings and classes at your HBCU of choice.

When I decided to move to Africa, I was clear that I wanted to avoid the cliché of “I will go to the promised land to find myself; the land where all that ails my people can be healed.” After having traveled to several countries, I was certain that a country on the African continent would be comforting as a place to live because I would blend in more than I had in Mexico, India and Europe. I would not go with expectations of rebirth and a self-righteousness that cause real Africans to roll their eyes at us and real Black Americans to find us obnoxious and quite frankly, boring as hell to talk to at parties.

It has been 8 months since I moved to Rwanda in East Africa. Within this time, I have traveled to Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana. What I have learned about myself has been very telling and hard to admit. No, I have not become a cliché. What I have become is very confused and torn about how I feel as a woman of African descent and an American who has somehow managed to survive the slow genocide her country has consistently perpetuated on her people for several centuries now.

When You Realize That You, Too, Are a Colonizer

I possess a blue passport.

Those five words don’t seem very powerful, but they are. Because of my blue passport, I was hired at a higher pay scale than my African colleagues who teach at the same international school as I do. Some of these colleagues have taught for significantly longer than I have. To be hired as a “local” in many industries is to be openly told: Your lack of western privilege will cost you.

Because of my blue passport, I have strolled into African nations with very little questions asked of me. Not only have I not had to wait anxiously to see if my visa has been approved, I have not had to even apply for one sometimes. I literally just get off a plane, go stand in a line, hand over my passport and 30 dollars and am told: Welcome to our country; I hope you enjoy. My Rwandan friends cannot even be guaranteed this privilege within their own continent. They can travel to Uganda. They can finagle their way into Kenya. If they want to leave the continent, access to the UAE is pretty easy, but…America and Europe…uhm…no.

I think about these blatant barriers that lie between me and the many people I encounter each day who could easily be mistaken for my cousins. When my other Black American friends and I get together and discuss our experiences here, I fall silent when they begin to complain about how the price doubles for everything when you open your mouth and the moto driver or the landlord or the shopkeeper realize you are not Rwandan. They complain about how unfair it is without acknowledging that even paying THREE times as much as the Rwandan who wanted to rent the same house as them does not preclude them from still being able to afford a trip back to the states for Christmas (a ticket that comes with a $1500 price tag, IF you book far enough in advance).

The conversation never seems to turn to the awkwardness of paying your housekeeper twice as much as most people, but her child is still always sick and her school fees overdue and when you choose to give her extra, you are pretty much only sacrificing buying a new purse from a fancy shop in town. No one finds it upsetting that the “real” stores with “quality” linens and “soft, yet sturdy” cotton clothing come at the price of the local shop keepers having to move out further from Kigali, taking their children who had some access to “city schooling” back to the village. During our commiseration, we gloss over how trying to learn Kinyarwanda is thought of as “cute” even by Rwandans because we know English so if we are going to take a stab at another language why not a more useful one, like French?

How can you ever fully connect with your Rwandan cousins when you know with absolutely no doubt that if another genocide breaks out you would be at the Embassy within minutes, flashing that blue passport while your cousins tried not to get macheted into tiny pieces by their cousins?

When You Trade Unapologetic Racism for Unrelenting Sexism

Lindiwe Mazibuko, the 35-year-old woman who led the opposing party of the South African parliament, stood up to the sitting president and questioned his involvement in yet another corruption scandal. Jacob Zuma, the 73-year-old husband of five wives (one committed suicide presumably because death was more desirable than marriage to him) responded to this grown woman’s well researched accusations. Zuma did not address Mazibuko as “Madame” or “Miss.” He called her a little girl. On the parliament floor. While cameras rolled.

A bunch of male leaders in Kenya got together to discuss toughening their rape laws. Some bizarrely progressive power broker wanted to put the idea of spousal sexual assault on the table as a punishable offense. Not only did the majority of his esteemed colleagues find this ridiculous, one of them was quoted as saying: If I want to have sex with my wife, then I. WILL. Have. Sex. With. My. Wife.

A well-meaning Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda decided to turn the focus of her weekly conversational English class into a discussion about gender equality. The class, made up of mostly men, were eager to discuss how to make life better for their wives, sisters and daughters. They were all for gender equality as long as they could define and patrol its borders. Yes, their women could be equal as long as they were not expected to now care for children, do domestic chores and be held accountable for their womanizing. The discussion ended with one male pointing out that “I don’t see any gender equality in the Bible so maybe it is just not God’s way.”

Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks often about the contradictions she faces as a woman born and raised in Africa, but who has spent a vast majority of her adult life making a name for herself in the west. Since I have sort of been stalking her for several years now, I am familiar with many of the interviews she’s given about her experiences. In one interview, she mentioned that if she is being picked up by a limo in New York City and gets a look from the driver, she is more likely to think he is wondering, “What is this black person doing in a limo?” If she is being picked up by a limo in Lagos, that same look is probably the driver wondering why any woman who is not on the arm of a prominent businessman is deemed important enough to warrant a limo.

The validation I feel whenever I look up at billboards and see people who look like me is indescribable. When my friend lost track of me on a beach in Ghana and texted me saying: At first, I was like, just look for a black girl, but then I realized…, my laugh was even heartier than her’s because I, too, took for granted that this was how I often searched crowds for other black folk. I still fight back a tear when I stand up on a plane to go to the bathroom and there are so many black faces that the one or two white people stand out. And their faces of poorly masked discomfort tell me they know it. Not even the animated figures in the safety video look like them. The cartoon people, like the models in magazines and the actors on television, reflect my image. This privilege – to not have your entire existence erased – bestows a power on one’s psyche that I have, until now, underestimated.

However, what am I to make of the constant reminders that my gender requires me to shrink into a ball, accepting my second class status as a mandate from this supernatural being called God? In large and small ways, women on this continent are asked to do what all Black Americans are forced to do: grit their teeth through humiliation after humiliation and wisely choose the battles worth their risk to fight.

My friend, Rob, a Black American male who left the states when he was 18 and has not returned in over 15 years openly talks about how “breath taking the sexism is here. This place makes me so glad to have been born a male because I would’ve been stabbed somebody.”

I think of Rob’s privilege when I watch passengers on the tro-tro in Accra, Ghana. The women request the driver of the dollar van to stop in a meek, imploring tone. “Mate, Mate,” they whisper in a 12 year old girl’s voice, “bus stop, please.” The men just pound on the side and the van stops. Walking along the streets of Accra, taxi drivers pull alongside me and beep their horns. When I say I don’t need a taxi, they continue to drive alongside me trying to convince me that I do need them. After ignoring them for a few moments, they drive off. When I observe male pedestrians, their strategy for getting a taxi differs drastically. They simply flag one down WHEN they need it. Once, I saw a taxi pull up to a Ghanaian man. He gave him a cursory “no” and without another word, the driver sped off. No trailing beside the man as he walked, demanding him to “get in the car. I will take you where you want to go.” This man’s no was taken as a final answer. Why wasn’t mine?

Friends back in the states continue to ask me to talk more about my experiences here. One friend wants to have an extensive conversation when I return home for a visit. When asked specifically for my take as a Black American, I find myself at a loss of words. I don’t know what these people want me to say. Should I tell them that my 8 months in Africa have caused me to question even further the west’s demonizing of the continent, but that I also have realized I had allowed myself to give into some of the fantasy of the “the motherland” over-the-counter Africans have created as an understandable way to defend and protect our ancestral homeland? How can I verbalize that I have no desire to return to the country that seems disinterested in fulfilling its promises to all of its citizens, yet I am not protected from injustice and inhumanity here in the promised land, either?

Why I Have Lost My Shit SO Many Times Over Bill Cosby

Throughout my 6-month struggle to actually engage in an authentic conversation in Kinyarwanda, there have been many frustrations as I slip over all those syllables that make no sense in the configuration the Rwandan people have decided equates to real life sounds that people should understand. This is the first time my frustration has been this intense. This is the first time it has taken place with someone who was not my weekly language tutor.

Yes, this fool I am cussing out in English speaks my language perfectly fine. But, I want him to know in HIS language that he has no right to try to negotiate with me. He has no right to silence my friends and expect them to deal with his bullshit.

Why are there about 27 ways to say the number 1 in Kinyarwanda, but no way to say: You dirty fucking bastard. I am going to crack this mother fucking glass over your mother fucking head if you don’t get your mother fucking ass out of this fucking house. Right. Fucking. Now!

This is not my house. This is not my party. This is not even really my fight. But I am mad as hell.

Four months ago, Bill Cosby didn’t realize the mic and camera were still rolling. So, he spoke softly in his sweet Grandpa voice to this reporter who watched him repeatedly refuse to speak about the village of women who are accusing him of using their bodies as his own personal playground. America’s favorite dad looked perfectly vulnerable as he suggested to the journalist: “If you want to be taken seriously by your peers, you shouldn’t show this part of the interview. Maybe you should talk to your superiors and tell them to cut that part out.”

And here, clear across the world, I am standing in my friend’s living room, watching this pig who has repeatedly made my friend feel uncomfortable try to explain to me that I am not speaking to him respectfully enough. That he didn’t mean any harm. That just because I am cute, I have no right to kick him out of my friend’s house.

“I have told you nicely it is time for you to go. I am out of niceties. I do not give one single solitary fuck about how you feel. You need to go.”

I have no idea what this Rwandan Bill Cosby has said to my friend, Cecelia. But, I know she is sitting on the sofa next to him, eyes turned down, body curled as far away from him as possible. Another friend is looking toward me and mouthing, “Come get this dude.” Since I am the only one at the party who knows this fool through someone else, I know it is my duty to rid this fun, lighthearted gathering of this parasite that is sucking the joy out of it.

“Just wait,” he continues to negotiate. “We are having a good time. No problem.”

“No, there is a problem and it is you. Get out.”

Bill Cosby has delivered several performances in the midst of the parade of women – both wealthy and regular folk, famous and unknown, respectable and whorish – who have told the same story over and over and over again. He has joked about these women’s audacious tales, quipping to one female audience member to be careful not to leave her drink out around him.

And here this fool is sitting his ass on my homegirl’s sofa and looking at me as if all I have said is: “You so crazy. Boy, you need to turn it down.”

Unlike all the men in the states who have found endless reasons to explain away 25 women accusing one rich, powerful man of violating them, the men on this night at this party oddly believe one female voice is more than enough. They have no idea why I am cursing in perfect English and horrific Kinyarwanda, but they know both are directed toward one person. And they join me in my campaign to get him out.

“Look, Bruh,” one of them mediates. “We all are leaving anyway. So, let’s just call this a night.”

In the west, in the east, in the motherland, a sole soprano needs the aid of at least one bass and maybe a baritone in order for folks to heed the gospel. Only when the men in the room finally realize something is amiss does the creator of the chaos make a move. He finally takes his leave.

On facebook, people just don’t understand. Why now? Why are all of these women coming forward now? If it happened 30 years ago, why would they wait until NOW? There has to be something behind that, they say. “They” want to destroy his legacy. After the preeminent philanthropist and career-maker in Black culture drugged and berated her before throwing her out on the street, Beverly Johnson did not mention that Cliff Huxtable was a sick fuck to her manager the next day at brunch. Even a whole year later, she hadn’t told anyone that the man who had created a multi-million dollar empire in only a matter of decades had tried to rape her. She, too, must be a liar.

“I am so glad y’all got rid of that man,” my friend Josh says once Rwandan Bill finally gets on a moto and carries his ass away. “When we were out on the balcony talking, he was trying to get me to go into business with him. He was talking about some vaguely illegal prostitution ring that may or may not have involved trafficking women into Rwanda. It was weird.”

“What the fuck? Why didn’t you say something before?”

Josh looks remorseful, but is unable to explain why he didn’t summon up his much more superior Kinyarwanda skills to take that fool down. He just sighs and says, “It was so surreal. I was like, if he is at THIS party with THESE people, I can’t be hearing him right. He cannot be talking about setting me up with hookers.”

Suddenly, I am struck by the image of Cecelia cowering on the couch and I am again filled with rage. “Did that mother fucker actually proposition CeCe?”

“Yes and no. Yes, he said he wanted to sleep with her…like tonight. But, the prostitution/possible trafficking business…that was a private conversation he felt he should share with only me.”

When Phylicia Rashad waxed poetic about how influential Dr. Cosby was in creating a positive image of Black middle class life, she never once launched into a sililoquoy that said: Bill Cosby is an upstanding man of such high moral character. I know in the depths of my being that he would never do what these women are saying he did. Yet, she, too, has been used as evidence that Bill Cosby, like the fictional television character he and a staff of writers created, could not possibly be a power-wielding pervert.

My phone begins ringing. I already know who it is. I assume the mutual friend through whom I vaguely know Rwandan Bill has gotten the text I sent to him, which said something to the effect of: Come and get your fucking friend.

“I told him to get on a moto or I was coming back over there,” the friend begins. “He says he is on the main road getting one now. Is that true or do I need to come and put him on one?”

At this point, I am done.

Done because when Camille Cosby finally opened up her mouth, she said: “We really need to ask ourselves who is the victim here.”

Done because on facebook a person who actually possesses a womb posted: Some of the sex was consensual and what were these women doing there in the first place.

Done because this arrogant, entitled bastard took my own repeated and very vocal NO as the beginning of a discussion instead of the ending of one.

My friend wants to know what Rwandan Bill did. “I know he can be a little stupid sometimes, but tell me…what happened? Are you okay? What has he done to upset you so much?”

Tomorrow, there is supposed to be an exclusive interview with some women who Bill Cosby has not drugged or raped. They are going to tell us how our ears are lying and we should be more suspicious of our eyes. They are going to tell us why all those women who their father and husband did drug and rape should not be trusted. They are going to convince a lot of people that for the sake of dismantling racism, we should tolerate patriarchy just a little bit longer.

Bill Cosby is going to sit his ass on America’s sofa while those 25 women cower next to him. When the camera is turned off for real this time, far too many people will actually ask themselves Camille’s twisted question.

And I have not yet learned the word for fuck in Kinyarwanda or French.

The People of Johannesburg

There are few things that excite an extroverted black nerd more than meeting new people. When that extroverted nerd actually gets to visit another country and meet new people there, it is almost an orgasmic experience tantamount to having the perfect slice of bacon after being swine-free for four excruciating months. While it is impossible to share every single conversation I had in Johannesburg, South Africa, it is very easy for me to share excerpts of the three most informative (some might even say, life-changing) dialogues I engaged in during my 9-day stay in Jo’burg. So without any further adieu, I present to you:

THE PEOPLE OF JOHANNESBURG (ABRIDGED)

1. Christmas Dinner at Ethel’s

The Context: A few hours before this exchange occurred, Kate, the woman from whom I am renting a room, has picked me up at the airport and asked: Do you mind if we stop at my neighbor, Ethel’s, before I get you settled at my place? I am eager to fellowship with some real South Africans so I not only agree to go to this stranger’s house for dinner, I pull out one of the bottles of wine I brought from Capetown and ask Kate if this Ethel person will like it.

Ethel: I no longer tolerate boring people. I have decided they are a waste of my time and energy.
Me: Well…dayum. I guess we all have to have our standards for the company we keep.
Ethel: These boring people…they take and take and take. They give nothing. They come to Christmas dinner with a bottle of wine and think: this is all I have to do. They do not try to be the least bit interesting. Or think of anything clever to say. It is like they do not know or care to know the rules of human engagement.
Me: (remembering the bottle of Pinotage I gifted to Ethel upon entering her house) Uhm…are you trying to tell me I am boring? Should I leave now? I am sorry.
Ethel: (laughing) Oh no…I do not think you are boring. I know this because even my daughter wants to talk to you. She has not found any adult interesting since she turned 12. Even before then, she would yawn and go into her room whenever I had people over.

How this conversation changed me life: I will no longer tolerate the intellectually lazy either. Up until this exchange with Ethel,I thought my requirement to surround myself only with people who could stimulate me was elitist. Perhaps, it is. But, Ethel’s unapologetic theory on why we should not allow our time to be hi jacked by our duller brethren has given me a sense of clarity. I can now rest assured that my refusal to interact with the uninteresting is really a fight for intellectual survival. Thanks, Ethel.

2. A Girls’ Day Out With Sonele

The Context: I have a friend named Tiaji. Tiaji has traveled to damn near every African country on the continent at least once. As a result, she is always the first to e-introduce me to someone with whom she has formed a long distance friendship. Hence, my afternoon with Sonele. She picks me up from my overwhelming shopping mall excursion and drives me around funky little neighborhoods that tour companies do not include in their promotional brochures. We talk politics. We talk the future of both of our countries. And as often happens when single women get together for any reason, we eventually talk men.

Sonele: So, how are the men in Rwanda?
Me: Girl, don’t even get me started. Well, at least not until we have another cocktail.
Sonele: Oh yes…I can see you have stories. I bet mine are better than yours.
Me: Oh, we gon play this game, huh? Alright…all I have to say is: if one more Rwandan man invites himself over to my house to help me practice my French AFTER talking about his wonderful wife and dozens of kids, I. Will. Lose. My. Shit.

Sonele: Is that the best you can do? Let me tell you about a friend of mine who is dating a very successful Nigerian businessman. At 3 months in, he casually tells her that he has a wife who is raising his children back in Nigeria. He explains that the wife would like to meet her.

Me: (a look that I can not describe, but that Sonele finds hilarious)

Sonele: Oh no, Dear One, that is not even the best part. Just wait.

Me: Don’t tell me that she actually agreed to meet this man’s wife?

Sonele: Yes, she did. At the meeting, the wife thanked her for keeping her husband occupied on his many trips to South Africa. She said something like: “I know he is going to have sex with women when he travels, but I just don’t like the idea of him being with just any woman…no matter how dirty. If he is with you, I am happy about how his activities will turn out.”

Me: (A look that obviously shows how much my mind is blown)

Sonele: That is the look that all of us had on our faces when she told us this. When we were all like: “You are going to break up with him, right,” she looked at us the same way we were looking at her.

Me: Wait…so this friend is still with the Nigerian man and his wife has not shown out or thrown shade AT ALL during this whole arrangement?

Sonele: Oh no, Dear One. They are true sisterwives in every sense of the word. Sometimes, when he travels, he will take my friend and not his wife. My friend will call the wife and ask if the children need anything and the wife will give her a list. She will even make sure the children thank their auntie for bringing them back gifts from her many travels.

Me: Alright, you win. I have nothing to top that.

How this conversation changed my life: It confirmed for me what I have known for quite some time. It is not life that causes suffering. It is when people refuse to face and deal with the reality of their lives that they end up suffering. Sonele’s friend doesn’t appear to be in great pain over her situation and neither does her sisterwife. They both seemed to have decided early on not to wage a war against the reality they chose for themselves and have created the rules around their relationship with the same man that makes them both comfortable. Their eyes seem to be open and not closed. This is probably the most practical way to approach any relationship, actually. Carry on, Sonele’s friend (and your sisterwife).

3. An Inquiry Into My Wasted Womb By Wendele

The Context: Unlike Capetown, folks can not be bothered to actually walk around Johannesburg. Not during the night. Or day. Not when it is raining. Or when the sun is shining and there is a nice breeze to balance it out. Kate has a car, but sleeps until 3 in the afternoon so as a result, I get the number of a reliable cabbie within my first day. Wendele has driven me around several times before the following conversation occurs.

Wendele: When do you leave for Rwanda?
Me: Friday morning.
Wendele: Good, I am sure you miss your children. And they will be happy that you are back.
Me: Oh, I don’t have children.
Wendele: I am sorry to hear that.
Me: Don’t be. I’m not.
Wendele: Excuse me, Ma’am?
Me: You shouldn’t be sorry. I don’t have children because I don’t want them.
Wendele: Do not worry. There is still time for you. You can still have babies.
Me: Oh, I know I can. I just won’t.
Wendele: (a look that I can not describe but I find hilarious) No babies for you?
Me: Nope. No babies for me.
Wendele: But what about your husband? He is fine with no babies?
Me: I don’t have a husband.
Wendele: You do not want a husband either?
Me: (shrugs shoulders) Sure, why not? Under the right circumstances, I would get married.
Wendele: But…I do not understand. You are beautiful. And very kind. (Wendele shakes head)
Me: (laughing) Thanks for the compliment.
Wendele: I do not know many men who will be fine with no babies.
Me: Neither do I.
Wendele: Then, how will you get a husband?
Me: (shrugs shoulders) I dunno. Maybe I just won’t get one.
Wendele: What will you do with your life if there are no babies? No husband?
Me: See the world, write books, have brunch with Toni Morrison, have interesting conversations like this one, open schools, mentor teenaged girls, make out with smart, attractive men, eat good food, drink good wine, read books, meet people and become their friend, spend time with my family, help my nephew finish school…the possibilities are endless.

Wendele: (a look that shows just how much his mind is blown)

How this conversation changed my life: Much like Sonele’s friend and her sisterwife, I tend to look at the reality of the life I have chosen with my eyes wide open. I moved to the continent of Africa unapologetically rejecting motherhood and indifferent to marriage. I fully expect reactions like Wendele’s when I choose to engage in conversations about my reproductive choices. Perhaps because I have been having the more politically correct versions of these conversations in the states since I was in my 20s or because when this topic came up with a Rwandan woman several months ago I almost got prayed on, I find Wendele’s disappointment in me rather cute. Each time I have the “but, what do you mean you do not want children” conversation, I learn more about why many people do choose to have children. Wendele talked about how expensive Johannesburg was (his children’s fees at a local public school are 550 rand per month, per child) and how he can not afford to take days off, yet he and his wife are trying to have a fourth child. Why? Because he just wants another one, that’s all. Maybe try for another boy since he already has two girls. Much like the confusion in his voice when he questioned me, I offered my own, “Huh…but why?” when he shared his reproductive choices with me. I reserved my judgment of what I find to be a weak reason for bringing a life into the world. And by reserving my judgment, I realized that there will never be a reason that makes sense to me for why Wendele chooses to have another child. He just will. And I just won’t. And I learn again that I do, in fact, have something in common with this fellow human being. So, early congrats on Baby #4, Wendele.

No Rest For The Weary

The day after New York City told the world that it was okay for a man of the law to choke to death a citizen he was supposed to protect and serve, I sat across from my colleagues at lunch stoic and silent. The British teachers teased me (as usual) about not properly making tea. The Canadian teacher, who had asked me earlier with the sincerest confusion how could an officer kill an innocent man ON TAPE and not lose his badge, looked knowingly at me when I ignored the Brits’ jabs. The other American teacher knew why my talkative, silly disposition had drastically changed. She was white. An ally in this centuries old war to dismantle white supremacy, she knew the color of her skin dictated she proceed with caution.

“Are you okay, Keturah? You look troubled.”

“Do I?”

I realized at that moment I was not only troubled. I was tired. Tired of having these conversations. Tired because I had moved to another continent – one where everyone looked like me – and I still could not escape these inquiries about how it felt as a Black American to know that the country’s laws didn’t really apply to me. That I was foolish to even expect them to.

“Should I be troubled that the country my ancestors built for free is STILL trying to kill me? Should I be bothered that it is getting more successful at it with each passing day?”

The American teacher burst into tears and tried to tell me that she felt the same way. She said something about having two black brothers and the fear she had always felt for them only increasing since the non-indictment. She started to say something about the system being designed to screw her brothers, but I walked away.

Because I was tired.

Not even a full month after America reminded me that my life had little value since I had served my purpose several centuries ago, I took my weary self to South Africa for holiday. I began my holiday in the breezy beauty of Capetown since it had been cited by many travel magazines as a top city to visit given its stellar wine and breathe taking beaches. It was my goal to take full advantage of both the wine and the beaches for the nine days I was going to be here.

At Clifton Beach, the only thing whiter than the sand were all the bodies laying on it, as black ones brought them water and chairs and towels. At the nearby Bungalow Restaurant, more white people drank, ate and laughed as people who looked like me brought them food and cleaned up after them in the bathroom.

In one of many cab rides I was to take, a Zimbabwean driver said to me: “I bet you came here expecting to see Africans, didn’t you?” I told him that while I did not naively expect complete African empowerment only 20 years after apartheid ended, it was still jarring to see what is called the best African city on the continent essentially devoid of Africans. “Who calls this an ‘African’ city,” the driver quipped. “Don’t bother answering that. People who aren’t African probably.”

A Congolese bartender told me how he had to quit his last job because after training a bunch of white people who were being paid significantly more than him, his boss shrugged and simply said: White people get paid more. Sorry.

During my tour of the townships, my Black South African guide explained to me how he advanced from being “just a driver” to a certified guide. “A really nice German lady paid for my course. When I had gone to my boss to suggest the company send me to the course, he said not to worry about it because the exam was so hard that not even white people could pass it.”

The weariness I thought I’d left behind in Rwanda followed me as another Black South African informed me that while the running of the country was in the hands of Africans, all of the wealth remained in the firm clutches of essentially two Dutch families.

I am not the only person in this city right now who feels almost comatose because when my life is devalued by my country, that same country then tries to convince me that I am over reacting to or simply dreaming up its suffocation of my humanity. Somewhere in Capetown a man named Yonela Diko is so damn tired of white supremacy and its insistence that it does not really exist that he wrote a letter to The Cape Times. It’s been 20 years since apartheid ended on paper. Where is this new South Africa, he asks. Citing the white minority’s refusal to sacrifice even the easiest privileges that were gained on the backs of the black majority, Diko goes on for paragraph after paragraph wondering why he even has to write the paper to speak the obvious such as:

“Were white people, who had largely benefitted and made wealth under the apartheid regime, willing to underwrite the rise of the black majority that had been locked outside and remained impoverished, by allowing a specific tax transfer for leveling the playing field? That idea was rejected as anti-reconcilitary. What we were then left with was a necessity to believe in magic and hope for the best.”

And…

“The saddest part, however, about what is really happening in our country is that there is today no one who claims any responsibility for apartheid; the same people who are obviously holding on to generational gains of the regime, have today shifted into an almost pathological obsession with 20 years of democracy and what they think could have happened in the past 20 years. What they seem to forget is that we have been watching them since the beginning of these 20 years, at every turn.”

Oh Yonela, what can I say to you at 20 years in? We have been watching for over 60 years. We have written some version of your letter to every paper in every state and every legislator in every branch. We have marched every sentence of your weariness across every street in the country. We have fought with our dollars, our ballots, our fists. And they are still killing us.

Yonela, you haven’t earned the privilege to feel fatigued. Neither have you earned the luxury of time. You have no idea how exhausting this shit will get.

A Tale of Two in Their 20s

1.
I am standing over the biggest suitcase. The one I have stuffed with the few books I could NOT give away. The one I decided could also hold what I considered useful artifacts: the five journals in which I had sporadically written during my 20s. Those first few years after being released from what I felt were the confines of college and into what I naively fantasized as the unbridled freedoms of adulthood – laid out in its tedious suffering – now peek out from behind bra straps and copious pairs of socks.

“Uhm…even if I charged you for the overweight,” the lady behind the check in counter had apologized moments ago, “you STILL have too much stuff. I could lose my job if I sent this through.” She pondered this predicament as if it were she who could not purge enough of her worldly possessions before embarking on an international relocation and was now faced with an impossible dilemma.

I stand off to the side where the bizarrely patient Turkish Airlines attendant assigned me to “readjust and repack to see if you can fit some of your things in your carry on.”

I have readjusted and repacked twice. Each time I put my newly packed suitcase onto the scale, it is still overweight.

It is us, my journals suggest. We simply must go.

2.
“What 24 year old starts a school?”

I am staring at Mensiye in absolute awe.

“I mean, I can see volunteering at one or helping out in a needy community. But what made you think to start a school when you were barely out of school yourself?”

“Well, my background…” He pauses for a brief second. In that second, I contemplate asking him what he means by “my background.” I realize I don’t need to ask, though. I have only been in Rwanda for three months, but I have had enough conversations with its countrymen to know what Mensiye’s background is. When this young man was barely out of Kindergarten, a mob of machete-wielding rebels invaded his village and gang raped its women before brutally slaughtering them and anyone else who could not run away fast enough. His background is this: a traumatized orphan roaming around a destroyed village until one of those who survived finds him and becomes his family.

“Someone helped me,” Mensiye continues. “So, I must help other children who do not have what I had.”

3.
I make the decision quickly. And without as much internal conflict as I would have predicted.
I pull out the first journal. It is a nondescript hard cover notebook with simplistic renderings of flowers sprinkled across the cover. I remember picking it up from the clearance table outside of the Border’s on Veterans Blvd. Since my excitement about this, my GREATEST move, has resulted in my being at the airport four hours early, I decide to ceremoniously engage in what had become a ritual for me every few years. Before throwing these artifacts away, I decide my life as a young adult deserves one final perusal. I flip through the pages, stopping on a random day in 1998.

Apparently, I hated my job. As I read through the pages of complaints I had about it, I come to these conclusions:

1.My boss expected me to work even when the work I was assigned was stupid. I did not like this.
2.My job was boring. I did not like this.
3.I wasn’t paid enough. I did not like this.
4.In a related complaint, my car was old and frequently in need of repair. This meant I had to drive all the way from Uptown to Metairie to bring it to my father so he could fix it. I did not like this.

4.
“The nuns who take care of some of the street children up the road have asked us to teach their children once a week.” Mensiye looks uncertain for the first time since we pulled up to this modest building and he started unloading the furniture and school supplies that have been donated by his friends and co-workers who want to support what he is doing. “We already have 50 more students than we can handle. I want to be able to feed them more than once a week, but if we take on these extra children…”

I ask Mensiye if plans have been made to formalize this rather grassroots operation so there can be regular meals, full time, salaried teachers and maybe an infrastructure that will allow the school to function when he and his mother are not able to be there and make things work.

“I can ask my friends in the states for donations,” I try to wipe the worry from his eyes. “But, this can’t be your only way to keep the doors open.”

Mensiye nods his head and says he has applied for grants with varying degrees of success. Getting a sustainable support system is top priority for him and the board.

“I have been funding this with whatever money I have left over from my own salary at work.” He says this casually, as if this is what every man in his 20s does with an already modest pay check. “We have gotten too big and the work has become too important for that to be enough now.” As quickly as the uncertainty rested on his face, it has taken leave.

“I will find some other way.”

5.
In May of 1999, someone named Patrick did not return my phone call.

Although I did not know why Patrick stopped talking to me, I devoted three full paragraphs to all the possible reasons why he COULD have decided to not pick up his phone when I called HIM to see why he had not called me.

This led me to lamenting why I did not take someone named Darion seriously when he showed interest in me. I weighed the pros and cons of maybe finding some way to let Darion know that I could like him, now. Perhaps. Why not? A page and a half later, I have decided to neither pursue Darion nor call Patrick ever again.

6.
“I decided my mother and sister should leave Kigali and come back to Nyamata.”

Back at Mensiye’s mother’s house, I have been given tea and a slice of the banana bread our mutual friend baked as a gift for his family. I offer my few phrases in Kinyarwanda as my own gift in hopes that these people will see them for what they are: my attempt to connect with them and let them know I value who they are.

When Mensiye explains to me why he lives in the city and his family in the village, he has just come in from overseeing the building of an additional home on this small plot of land right outside the house where I and two other friends are currently fellowshipping.

“So, your mom and sister moved back, but you didn’t?” I wonder out loud if he really likes living in the city that much.

“Kigali is very expensive,” he explains. “Here, food is cheaper and so is land. I stay there because the work brings more money. When I send it back here, it goes farther.” He points out they would not have been able to build an extra house in Kigali, which means they would not have the benefit of rental income. “It is better for us this way.”

I find myself staring at Mensiye again. I do not know where these types of 27 year olds come from?

Before I can ask him to clarify if he really does support the school AND his family from one salary, Mensiye has excused himself from the table again to go into the yard and talk to the men who are working on the additional house.

I observe him give a series of directions in several different languages. He waits until the men have begun work again before coming back into the house to finish his tea.

7.
At some point, my own words became insufficient to voice my discontent. An entire journal entry is filled with Lauryn Hill lyrics. The only contribution from me is: Lauryn speaks my heart.

I throw my last artifact into the garbage can when the Turkish Airlines lady comes over to see if I am ready to re-check in.

“What are you doing,” she almost gasps. “Are you really throwing your stuff out? You couldn’t just fit it in your carry on?”

“Some things could be repacked, but I still kept going over the limit. Without these, I am right at the weight requirement.”

The check in lady looks truly sad for me. “But, those were books, weren’t they? You shouldn’t throw away books.”

I explain to her that they were just old diaries from when I was young and confused. They were nice to have around when I wanted to reflect on my growth, but essentially were just reminders that youth is wasted on the young.

She seems less sad now. “I hear ya on that,” she smiles as she picks up one of the littlest suitcases and wheels it toward her counter. “Boy, all the nonsense I got into when I was younger. Such a waste of time and energy I wish I could get back now”

“Yes,” I nod my head. “Don’t we all.”

Traveling Solo: An Impromptu Marriage Proposal

One of the privileges that comes with being a childfree single woman is the ability to travel unencumbered by the constraints of partner discomfort or childcare availability. Added to this privilege is possessing an American passport and having the expendable income of an educated person with an advanced degree. Because of this, I have had the great fortune to travel solo throughout the world since I was in my late 20s. I am often intrigued by people’s reaction to me – a Black American woman with no husband or children in tow – either wandering the streets of Mexico City alone or being driven around and escorted to temples in Kolkata, India by a local man whose job is to both ensure her enjoyment of the city and her protection from it.

No matter the place or the people or the context of the conversation, the first question I am always asked is: “Are you married?” It is followed by the standard: “Where are your children?” I relish these conversation starters because the discourse that normally ensues reminds me of what much of the world expects of me. More importantly, I am reminded of how the story that these strangers write about me in their heads does not likely resemble the one I have chosen to write about myself.

My driver in Ethiopia is curious about my story. We are less than an hour into our drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar when Webunte turns to me and asks: “What is it like…?” He pauses and I can see him searching for the correct sequence of English words to finish his question. “As a lady. As a single lady in a foreign country? What is it like for you?”

I am not sure of the question. Is he asking me if I am able to enjoy myself without having a travelling companion or is he asking if I ever feel unsafe? I decide to answer both questions. “It is fun. I always look forward to my next adventure. I do think about my safety, too, though. This is why I normally hire someone to drive me around or when I am out site seeing, I will sometimes get a male guide to show me around.”

Webunte says men get the wrong idea sometimes and I should be careful. “They will think…uhm…they might think sinful things. They might think you do sinful things with them.” I chuckle and confirm that yes, I am aware that many men in the countries I visit see me as an easy lay and might try to take advantage. “In the states, we refer to it as ‘running game.’ I know how to handle men who try to run game, Webunte.” Webunte reassures me that he will not let these men take advantage of me here in Ethiopia. “You no worry while you are with me. No bad men will bother you.”

I thank him for his protection and tell him he is an honorable man. I continue to take in the rolling mountains and cattle being herded by families outside my window. A few minutes have passed before Webunte strikes up another conversation.

“Keturah,” he begins. “I have another question for you.”

“What is it?”

“Would you like to marry me?” He laughs, but waits for an answer.

I laugh, too, and tell him that I am not in the habit of marrying strangers.

“Stranger? We not strangers? Yesterday, I take you to my village…”

I interrupt him to remind him that he did not “take me to his village.” He actually took me to see the water fall that EVERY foreigner goes to see when in Bahir Dar. “The Blue Nile River just happens to be in the village where you grew up, Webunte.”

“Oh, okay…that is true. But, you like the village, no?”

“Yes, I liked the village, but I do not want to live there. And I do not want to marry you.”

Webunte assures me he will give me anything I want. He says he understands that I might not love the village at first, but “after some time, you could change the way you think.” He lets me know that he no longer lives in THAT particular village. Where he lives now there are lots more goats and he has built a new house and all he needs now is a wife and children. He paints this elaborate picture of all of these children running around and goats doing all sorts of things goats do and the two of us drinking beer and me loving it all.

“Uhm…no…I will not take care of goats. I will not have children. We can drink beer later, but I will not be your wife. Thanks for offering.”

Eventually, I convince Webunte that I will not change the way I think. He will have to find a nice Ethiopian girl to have his children and care for his goats. He accepts that there will be no marriage, but offers another proposal.

“We have sex.”

For some reason, this suggestions cracks me up. I burst into laughter and have a hard time putting words together to respond to this latest ridiculous idea from Webunte.

“Didn’t you just say you would protect me from bad men?”

Webunte looks confused. “Yes, I protect you from bad men.”

“Yet, you want me to do sinful things with you? Webunte…come on, homie. Are you not running game now, Bruh?”

Webunte shakes his head furiously. “No run. No game. I offer you to marry. You say no.”

“So now you offer me sex.”

“Yes. You want?”

“No, Webunte. I do not want to marry you nor do I want to have sex with you.”

“So, no marry? No sex?” He shakes his head and wonders aloud what DO I want. “I will give you whatever you want,” he repeats as if I did not understand him clearly the first time.

And THERE is the story that Webunte has written in his head. In the absence of a respectable woman seeking marriage lies the whore seeking an outlet for her sins. A woman who is eschewing marriage is obviously only interested in meaningless sexual encounters. If she does not want one, she must want the other. If she is looking for neither…well, then…what the heck is she looking for, by golly?

“Here is what I want: I want to make it to Gondar alive. So, you can give me that. Stop turning around here to plead your case and keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel.” I give him epic side eye and tell him he will grant me this wish ONLY.

He gives me exactly what I want. Periodically, he checks in with me to see if “you change the way you think.” I let him know that there have been no reversals in my responses to either proposal. He pretends that he is hurt and pouts before moving on to other topics.

By the time we get to Gondar, Webunte and I have become family. He insists that I am his sister now and tells me the reason why he wanted to marry me (or have sex with me) is because I am beautiful on the outside and the inside.

“You are like Ethiopian woman. But, you are really American. It was fun to make joke with you. Because you look at me like African woman when you do not like joke.”

Now, here is a story on which Webunte and I can both agree. I am American, yet my natural response to tom foolery is VERY African.

 

 

Mission: Fighting the Theft of Girls’ Voices

Anyone who knows me well knows why I became a teacher. A decade ago, I did not get the call to simply teach public school students how to write essays. 10 years ago, I got the call to teach the black and brown students at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS). From its genesis, the road I paved to become a literature teacher merged intricately with the road the universe paved for me to make the world safer for women, children and people of color. While my tenure at TYWLS taught me a lot about the particulars of a single sex school environment, I underestimated how starkly different girls carried themselves when they were educated with boys.

Joining the teaching staff of The International School of Kigali -Rwanda (ISKR) ignited a few assumptions on my part. Generally, my largest assumption was that I would have the most difficult time adjusting to teaching the children of the haves. A career dedicated to the children of the have nots provided me with an arsenal of skills that I assumed would have to be reworked in this new environment. I have found that assumption to be totally unfounded as my current students, who come from all over the world, behave all too predictably like the ones I taught in East Harlem. And their parents seem to ask themselves the same question after 3 p.m. that I ask myself before 3 p.m. If I were to strangle this child right now, would the world judge me harshly or would it understand?

I was only vaguely cognizant of my second assumption: teaching in a co-ed school would seem odd to me for the first several months at least. I did not even consider the difference in the girls because…well, girls are girls are girls. My only assumption was: Teenage boys might get more bored and disruptive in a literature class than their female counterparts. After two months, I am surprised at how often I reflect on all those professional development workshops the Young Women’s Leadership Network sponsored during my teaching career. No matter the topic, each workshop had as its foundation this simple premise: SINGLE SEX EDUCATION MATTERS. Teachers must make concerted, calculated effort to ensure girls do not fold themselves into that dangerous box of polite silence the world will insist is the most appropriate space for them. I do not recall many times in my classroom at TYWLS where I felt myself bubble into a mild rage because my girls refused to own their voice. I talk myself out of a fit of uncontrolled rage at least twice a week at ISKR.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I teach the 8th grade. On Mondays and Wednesdays, 6 boys from 5 different countries seat themselves on one side of the large conference table. 6 girls from 6 different countries seat themselves on the opposite. I instruct all students to write down the day’s critical thinking question about the text we are reading and answer it thoroughly. I watch the 6 boys hurriedly jot down the first thing that pops into their heads. I watch the girls think for a moment, write, erase, rewrite, call me over and ask the same question in at least a dozen different ways: “Is my answer good enough?”

When I ask for volunteers to share their responses, the boys’ hands go up immediately. Sometimes, they don’t even wait for me to ask for a volunteer; they just start talking. More often than not, the responses that come from the boys’ mouths are shallow and barely scratch the surface. I turn to the girls, who have written (in the most painstakingly neat penmanship) the most insightful observations about characters and connections to texts we read weeks ago. I watch them erase their answers. I watch them continue to write long after I have announced we are moving on, as if perfection can indeed be attained if I just allowed them 10 minutes to draft an answer instead of a measly 7.

“I want to hear from this side of the table.” I turn to the girls, ignoring the two eager hands waving in the air.

The girls remain silent. I start to feel the rage bubble in the bottom of my belly. I have made it clear to at least two of these girls that their responses are not only thoughtful, but are more correct than I was even hoping for.

Why are they silent?

I put one of them on the spot. “Yara.” She looks startled and irritated. “Let’s hear your answer.”

She averts her eyes at first and begins her answer the way so many girls here do. “Well, I don’t know if I am right…”

The bubbling makes its way to the middle of my stomach.

“Well, nobody knows how right you are either. The only person who knows the right answer is the author and since he’s dead, I guess you’re gonna have to speak for him.”

She smiles and looks back down at her paper. She begins to speak again.

“Well, uhmm…well, I think the tone is…”

It is only two brief seconds that Yara pauses to gather her thoughts. However, Joseph steals those two seconds with agility and precision.

“I think it is like the tone of the last poem we read because…”

The rage rises to my throat. Not because this impulsive 13 year old boy could not control his vocal cords long enough to wait for his classmate to finish her thought. I can barely contain myself because I am baring witness to Yara’s conscious choice to have her voice stolen. I see in her face the same irritation that I and her classmates feel as Joseph the Interloper casually grabs the mic I explicitly gave to her and only her as if he has a right to it. As if it is better suited to his hands. I see Yara half way open her mouth. I see her close it and lower her eyes to the table.

“Yara, were you done with your comment?” I encourage her to look up at me as I ask her the question again.

Her eyes remain lowered. “Joseph, I appreciate your eagerness and I will get to you in a moment, but we are interested in what Yara has to say now.”

Yara remains silent.

“Let’s hear it,” I insist.

I wish I could connect this trend to a specific country or a specific age group. Perhaps my fits of rage would be assuaged if all of the girls who offer up their voices to be co-opted by entitled males were poor village girls from “developing” countries. If only I could simply say, “Yara is only 13. Maybe Dutch girls are just more dainty.”

But Makeda is not Dutch. She is not 13. She is a 17 year old Ethiopian who introduced herself to me via her I am poem with: “I am a feminist.”

When Makeda whispers to me that she wants to withdraw her name from the ballot as representative on the student council, the bubbling in my stomach that is becoming so familiar I barely notice it shoots through me with a fierceness that is surprising.

“That is unacceptable. Your name will remain on the ballot.”

Makeda does not understand why I am angry. Like Yara, she doesn’t understand why I cannot let her simply choose to fade into the background. After all, it is her choice. It is only an insignificant extra-curricular activity.

“I didn’t know we’d have to give a speech,” Makeda tries to explain as if this will make me understand why she needs to momentarily turn herself into a mute.

“I cannot allow it, Sweetie. This might be selfish of me but I cannot allow an almost 18 year old who is going off to university to major in Women Studies in a year to stand here and tell me she plans on cowering in front of 20 people she has eaten lunch with for the past three years. I will allow you to make your speech last, which gives you a few minutes to jot down something on this napkin. But you will be telling your inzu why you are qualified to represent them on the student council.”

I do not know what to make of Makeda or her friend, Ariana. A 16 year old Italian with two parents who work for the embassy, I am baffled by Ariana every time she opens her mouth to announce the play she has written “is really stupid. I can’t believe the drama class actually has to perform it.” I watch her watch me as I peruse the snappy dialogue she puts in her characters’ mouths and the sophisticated way she uses stage directions to paint the picture of a family who is grappling with a host of problems.

I bite my tongue each time she disparages her stellar work and plan my moments to transform the rage into calm encouragement. In those planning moments, though, I watch her classmate, Kito, very closely. As Ariana consistently dismisses her obvious talent, Kito continues to nonchalantly turn in incoherent, grammatically torturous scenes rife with gratuitous violence that follow no clear plot line or dramatic structure. I talk him through rewrites in which he respectfully defends his choices. When he capitulates to my advice, however, it is only a humble, “Okay. I see what you are saying now.” Not once has Kito denounced these hot ass messes as “stupid” and unworthy of sharing with anyone else.

While I am certain that my girls at TYWLS were not immune to self-deprecation and self-doubt, I struggle to recall many memories in which either of these self-defeating notions were the norm. Girls being anything and everything but afraid in their class discussions. Girls fighting over whose turn it was to speak on behalf of the school at some event. Girls admitting that laziness is the reason why their work was below my and their own expectations instead of attributing poor quality to inferior skills. These seemed to dominant my daily experiences at TYWLS. I took for granted the reassuring comfort of such an environment. I allowed myself to believe that what I and my colleagues had created was the standard.

In this new environment, I decide every day to replace the grumblings of rage with commitments to gratitude. I remind myself to appreciate that my work to mold girls who are blind to their own power into women who are committed to their mission will be more challenging. Isn’t that the exact reason why I left my beloved TYWLS in my beloved New York City in the first place? If I am to continue my mission, I must accept the new shape it has chosen to take and adapt myself to it. The bubblings of rage will not likely subside. I am thankful that they won’t.

When A Communicator Can’t Communicate: The Struggle

Being a nerd can be quite burdensome. Because we love learning so much, nerds tend to turn every moment into a chance to stuff our overflowing brains with just one more nugget of information. Knowledge is to nerds what a six figure salary is to most other people. Therefore, many nerds tend to relish the opportunity to flaunt their intellectual prowess to anyone who is polite enough to humor us as we quote literary authors (the more esoteric, the better!) and wax poetic about our brilliant, simple solutions to the world’s complex social issues. And like the owner of a six-bedroom mansion quietly seeths with absolute rage when those pretentious neighbors down the street build a ten-bedroom mansion, we nerds are none too pleased when we are exposed for what we truly are: regular human beings who, in the learning process, actually fail several times before we succeed.

I have been repping Black nerds since 1975. I have had four decades to place almost all of my currency in my intellectual stock.

Imagine how humbling these last few weeks have been as I try to use the few Kinyarwanda phrases I have learned with actual Rwandans. Months before coming to Rwanda, I spent a few hours a week with my nifty Utalk app, listening to an overly friendly female voice slowly repeat numbers, greetings and simple sentences that promised to get me through my “settling in” phase in my new country. I came armed with “Muraho” (Hello!), “Murabeho” (Goodbye!), Simbyunva (I don’t understand) and Simbizi (I don’t know). If I ever needed to borrow a pen, use someone’s phone or ask how much something cost, I was fully prepared to articulate my need with precision and confidence.

So, the trouble with knowing only a few key phrases in any language is the people who are responding to those phrases don’t know that you only know a few key phrases. Added to this complication is the blessing and curse of being a Black woman in Africa. Particularly when I am out with non-Black people, the locals here assume I am one of them when I proudly slam one of my kinyarwandan phrases on the table. In such situations, the blessing of being in a country where I can more easily blend in turns into a curse.

It is a curse I inflict on myself. No one requires me to speak in Kinyarwanda. Since I am an Ex-Pat, I often find myself in environments where Ex Pats frequent. Therefore, any locals who also happen to be in these places automatically slip into English because they assume that the people with whom they are communicating likely do not know Kinyarwanda.

I could just speak English.

I could just make my life easier. Actually engage in a successful conversation.

Yes, I could do that. And most times I do.

But as for those other times…

Please enjoy the below transcript of what often happens when I do not settle for the okey doke and speak boring ole English here on the exciting continent of AFRICA. It is a sadly accurate depiction of what normally happens when I feel compelled to make it known that, yes, I can speak me some Kinyarwanda. If not to garner the respect of the locals, to at least instill a tiny bit of jealousy in the Ex-Pats within ear shot of these terribly inadequate conversations.

Scenario 1:

Me: (as I pass someone on the street) Muraho! Maramutse!!

Someone on the Street: “SOMETHING WITH A LOT OF WORDS THAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND AND THAT DON’T REALLY SOUND LIKE ANYTHING FROM MY UTALK APP”

Me: (Blank stare)

Someone on the Street: “MORE WORDS THAT DON’T SOUND LIKE ANYTHING ON MY APP.”

Me: (confidently, as if I have recently finished my dissertation on the etymology of Kinyarwanda) Simbuynva. Lo siento, I mean “mbabalira”…I think?

S.O.S. chuckles. And repeats all his confusing words again. But slower. With hand gestures and some broken up English words.

Me: (getting nervous because S.O.S is speaking to me like I am a pre schooler and I still have no damn idea what he is saying.) Sim…buyn…va?

(I add a sheepish smile and shrug my shoulders. I even put my hands up as if to say: Yeah, I am lost here and isn’t this quite an awkward moment in which we have found ourselves? My INNER NERD taunts me, suggesting that instead of looking like that cute, confused kid from the picture on the Utalk app, I look like a mentally challenged person with this abrupt, too-wide grin and the inability to respond to what is most likely a simple greeting.)

Scenario 2:

Me: (to my waitress who has spoken impeccable English the entire time I have sat at her table) Ese n’angahe?
Waitress: Awwwww…very good! You know Kinyarwanda?!

Me: (like a kindergartner whose teacher has just put the biggest, goldest star next to her name in front of the entire class) YES! I have been practicing for weeks now. I know how to say other things besides, “Can I get the check?”

Waitress: Really? No?

Me: Oh yes! Yes. Wait…just wait. (I think really hard) Ufite ikalamu?

Waitress: (feigning admiration surprisingly well) Wow. That is good. Do you really need a pen, however?

Me: No, not really. That is just what I remembered with confidence. Do you want me to ask you where the bank is, too?

Waitress: No, that will not be necessary.

(Here, I try not to be agitated with my lovely waitress. I remember that she, at least, applauded my success and even encouraged it. Last week, I reached back into the recesses of my mind to summon up the Kinyarwandan phrase for the ladies room, which is a mouthful. When I slowly, carefully, painstakingly managed “umasarani wabagole,” this heifer looked at me indifferently and said: “The toilet? You need the toilet?” I still have not forgiven that bathroom attendant lady for not humoring or applauding me like this waitress has.)

As you can imagine, I’d much rather Scenario #2 happened more than Scenario #1. However, we all know which one does happen more often.

When Scenario #2 has occurred, though, I have shamelessly latched on to the poor, defenseless Rwandan who has then pacified my desire to prove that I know more than I really do. And those poor fools who are slaves to their politeness have had to sit there as I threw out random words and phrases that mean absolutely nothing in the context in which I am using them. (Sometimes, I have suggested my captives clap!) I justify my language bullying by telling myself that I have entertained countless numbers of taxi drivers, shop keepers, neighbors and random strangers each and every time I have found myself in some version of Scenario #1. Therefore, my thirst for applause when Scenario #2 occurs is sort of like the laws of language and communication being balanced somehow. The world must have balance. If I am the one to do such balancing, so be it.

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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