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How to Survive West African Beef

Growing up in New Orleans cultivated unique life skills in ya girl.  My culinary sophistication is so evolved I can sense when food is improperly seasoned from just a half bite. I also hold a deep understanding of the absolute healing power of all things deep fried. The most important skill the N.O. taught me, though, is how to survive. How to not lose my precious life out here in these streets. I know how to not get myself killed by people who don’t necessarily dislike me, but can not allow my disinterest in the New Orleans Saints to go unpunished. To be fair, I do not have (nor have I ever had) anything against the football team; I just have never had any interest in the sports. None of them. However, if you are a New Orleanian, you have to at least feign some excitement when the drunken slurs of slightly insane Saints fans crescendos into unified chants of “WHO DAT!” I half ass who datted! my way through my entire childhood; I continue the faux excitement even as an adult. Every now and again, I am able to make some reference to Breezus “eating dem dirty birds” (a phrase which I am about 57% sure refers to that sportsing team in Atlanta that may be the rivals of the Saints and whose mascot is most likely some sort of fowl).

Who knew that my ability to remain, at the very least, neutral among deranged New Orleanians watching/discussing/preparing for/reading about/remembering a pivotal Saints game would prepare me for all this beef between the major nations of West Africa? And by major nations, I mean the big 3: Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria.

There are many things over which these three countries compete. It seems like jollof rice is one of these things. A very big one. I have listened with practiced neutrality to many conversations about whose jollof rice is the “real” one and whose jollof rice is more “African,” which I assume means which country put jollof on the map.

“Ghana stole it from us.” Joyce Lynn’s statement surprises me because right before she said it, I had asked this question: “Where in Dakar can I go for some good jollof rice?”

“I know you have probably had it before when you were in Accra,” she continues. “But, you should know, it was not the real thing. It was stolen.”

I sense there is more Joyce Lynn needs me to know about Ghana’s thieving ass and its inferior rice. I lean in and raise my eye brows as if to say, “Really? Those bastards stole jollof rice from you?”

“We serve it better than they do.” Joyce Lynn then describes the “special presentation” that the Senegalese do when they serve jollof rice. There are lots of details as she talks about the different colors and the placement of chicken along side the rice so it is not so plain looking. With each tedious detail, I nod and go “OOOO?” Joyce Lynn also needs me to know that, in addition to being non-creative thieves, Ghanaians also use inferior ingredients in their ill-gotten recipe. “The rice they use. It is no good. No good at all.”

I listen to Joyce Lynn explain why the grain of rice is important and am careful not to bring up a recent thread I followed in an online travel group where a psychotic gang of Nigerians challenged an aggressive mob of Ghanaians to some sort of jollof rice cook off. Many taunts were thrown back and forth. I left the room (out of fear for my virtual safety) when the leader of the Ghanaian jollof mafia mocked the Nigerians by suggesting that when their rice was inevitably deemed substandard, he would line all the Nigerians up against the wall and have his other aggressively crazy friends throw banku at them. The thread had begun with someone asking why Ghana’s jollof got such a bad rep from other West Africans. Almost 50 comments later, no one had even mentioned Senegalese jollof rice. Not one person. I knew better than to say this to Joyce Lynn.

During our dinner that exposed me to more than I really needed to know about the complexity of rice, Joyce Lynn’s father introduced me to even more things that Senegal did better than the rest of every other country on the entire continent.

“Do you like this place we have taken you to?”

I look around the nicely decorated restaurant with a lovely view of the monument he and his daughter will arrange for someone to take me to see.

“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically. “It is very nice and the food is good.”

“Well, you must not come here alone at night. Ever. At a certain time of night, this turns into a place where lots of men come. They will maul you. If you must come back, call my daughter here to come with you.”

I am touched that this papa is extending his fatherly protection to me, just some nondescript American woman who is renting his flat for a week. “Chrys, that is very sweet of you. But, how you gon’ send a 24 year old to protect me from boys who are probably only a few years older than her?” We all chuckle, but Chrys adds: “My dear, you must know the difference between Senegalese men and other African men.”

Apparently, Senegalese men are much more clever than their Nigerian counterparts. “Let’s say you are in Lagos, a man will just grab you and tell you to come sit down and then he will put lots of alcohol in front of you. Those Nigerians – they are very direct. Very bold. They sometimes tell us we use too many words. They say: ‘Why are you still talking…oooo?’ So, they grab women when they are in these bars and then make them drink alcohol.”

According to Chrys, Senegalese men are much better at wooing women than Nigerians. They have lots of sweet talk stored in their minds for “just the right moment.” And they also dance well. They will say all these sweet things, “impress you with all those clever moves and before you realize it, you will be pregnant.”

So, although they are bitter that Ghana has put their signature dish on the map, Senegal takes solace in the fact that their men’s game is so much tighter than the men of Nigeria they can not only impregnate unsuspecting women, they can plant their seed with only a “Baby, you are so beautiful” and some superior foot work.

The competition (already won by “the obviously better country” in the mind of the Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese) extends far beyond the actual western side of Africa. When I met a Nigerian at a party in Rwanda, one of the first questions he asked me was: “Have you been to Nigeria yet?” When I said that I had not, but was planning to visit West Africa soon, he quickly perked up. “You will go to Nigeria?” I told him that it was not the first country on my list.

“But, where will you go then?”

“Probably Ghana…”

Then, he got that look I knew well. When I was a teenager, I saw that same look on my pastor’s face when he looped an entire sermon about salvation around a Saints metaphor, in which their victory on the following Sunday would be analogous to the celebration all we saints sitting in the pews would feel on judgment day.

“Ghana is a nice country,” The Nigerian began. “But, how can you go there first? You can not say you have been to Africa until you have been to Nigeria.”

All the visitors on that Sabbath day gave their lives to Christ by the time Pastor Francois had finished describing the joy, the ultimate testament of the power of our prayers, the depth of our faith that the Saints’ victory would show.

“Who dat!” I yelled at the confused Nigerian.

“I do not understand.”

“Neither do I, Homie.”

‘Cross That Border, Live A People Who Are Free

I remember the first time I got wind of what it meant to be “from the Congo.” I had just begun going regularly to a lively step aerobics class at the Nyarutarama Sports Club, which is roughly a 3-minute walk from my house. Because I was self-conscious about my lack of Kinyarwanda and French skills, I often occupied my time before the class checking myself out in the mirror or doing my standard nerd girl two-step when the instructor played intro music as he set up the steps for class.

One day, the instructor put on music that was definitively African. I heard a series of drum beats. So, I did what I thought every person of African descent did when they heard drums. I engaged in a twerk. For clarification, I did not do a full blast, nasty twerk…I did a very respectable, mini-twerk  of sorts. I had been in Rwanda long enough to know how dignified I, especially as a woman, was supposed to carry myself at all times. So, my mini-twerk was quite appropriate in my humble opinion. And the shimmy that I threw in at the end of my impromptu dance performance was not “too much” as far as I was concerned.

As I blew a kiss at myself in the mirror, I saw the eyes behind me look curious and slightly uncomfortable. I had found it odd that no one else had been twerking along with me. Or at least, moving their hips. In addition to the drum beats, a woman’s voice had been belting out some very passionate refrain in a language that didn’t sound like Kinyarwanda or French, so may have been Swahili. I mean, it was like she was demanding, “Twerk, dammit!”

“Congolese?” Someone threw out this word as if it were a question for which he already had the answer. His voice was a bit accusatory and amused at the same time.

The people around seemed to agree with him. A few of the women smiled and chuckled, “Yes, I think you are from the Congo.” One other man just shook his head as if he was having trouble accepting me for who I was.

By the time the Bus Incident occurred, I was developing a hypothesis about the difference between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, Rwanda was your saved auntie while DRC was that young auntie who had not found Jesus and did not appear to be interested in looking for him, either.

One of my favorite things to do in Kigali on Sunday mornings is to catch the bus and run the few errands that can be run when many businesses are closed because folk are in church. These Sunday morning bus rides are normally peaceful and uneventful.

Except for one time when…

These passengers got on the silent bus. I figured out they were not from Rwanda because they were talking LOUDLY. And they continued to talk LOUDLY as the Rwandan passengers tried to drop them hints with the epic side eye they kept throwing at the undignified passengers. I looked up from the book I was reading when I heard the noise and took the time to collect more data to support my hypothesis.

There were only about four new passengers, but the way they were cutting up one would have thought at least a dozen more people had just boarded the bus. Out of no where, one of my Congolese brothers decided he wanted to sing. Out loud. His friends joined in. And they started doing this little dance in their seats. Much like my mini-twerk from aerobics class, it was a modified version of what would have likely taken place had they had a dance floor and more room than the bus allowed. But, the Rwandan passengers were not trying to have it. At some point, one of them said something to the rowdy group.

And the leader of the unsaved started laughing. It was the kind of laugh that I could tell was dismissive. Kind of like when your healthy friend informs you about all the toxins in bacon and what they do to your body and you laugh and say something like: “Does this mean I can have your bacon, too?” In addition to this dude outright laughing right in this nice man’s face, he took out a bag of chips and…

opened them.

And ate them.

On.

The.

Bus.

“Whoa,” I whispered in awe. “Is this dude actually eating on this bus? On the Lord’s day?”

By the time I made it over the border myself, I already assumed that the average Congolese citizen did not have good behavior.

But, AfricanJesusInHeaven, Congolese people in the actual Congo…

A few weeks ago, I went to Goma for the annual Amani Festival. It is a pretty big music festival that draws many people from the region to its stage every year. As soon as I crossed the border, I knew I was no longer in Rwanda.

On the way to the concert, I noticed a man walking towards the venue wearing a gigantic gold sombrero trimmed in red fringe. The hat matched his shiny gold blazer that he accessorized with bright red jeans and these over sized house slippers that one wears in winter because they are fuzzy and warm. The slippers were of some Looney Tunes character – Bugs Bunny, I think.

Not only were vendors selling food outside. On the street. People were buying the food they were selling and eating it. On. the. Street. Folk were just taking gigantic bites out of beef brochettes and corn on the cob right there on the field as they sang along and danced to the artists’ diverse sounds that represented many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A conga line broke out in the middle of Ismael Lo’s Dibi Dibi Rek. Because the initiator of the conga was drunk off his ass (he handed some random stranger one of his beers right before the line began), the impromptu burst of joy ended just as abruptly as it had begun. One or two people ended up falling to the ground, but no one was hurt.

Old ladies danced. They weren’t dropping it like it was hot. But, I saw one group of grannies laying it down like it was lukewarm at least.

I had a difficult time purchasing a plate of fried plantains because there was a full sized pool table blocking the stand where the plantain lady was selling her food. Yes, you read that right. Somebody brought a damn pool table to an outdoor concert. There was a vigorous game continuously going on each and every time I made it over to that side of the field to buy something.

What is happening here, I kept asking other Kigali dwellers. Does His Great Honorable Excellency Paul Kagame know about all this disorder, this unbridled unleashing of loud living that goes on less than 20 minutes away from his quiet, lazy Giseyni?

It was one of my unsaved brothers who finally answered my question.

“Do you ever go to Kigali?” I asked a semi-sober concert goer.

“Kigali is for…when you need to rest,” he responded. “Or when you want to get a girl.” A naughty grin took over his face. “But, that can cause problems. Because then the girl… she will want to come to here…”

I didn’t even bother to ask why these girls would want to ruin this handsome young man’s peaceful weekend in Kigali by bringing him back to this place where people live out loud.

Even your saved auntie don’t wanna go to church EVERY single Sunday.

 

 

When You Fail at Being a Good African-American

Perhaps the greatest evidence of how traumatic the experience of living as a descendant of enslaved Africans in the very land where the dehumanization of your ancestors took place is the sadistic need many African-Americans have to buy a plane ticket to a West African country and make the pivotal point of their trip a visit to a former slave castle.  I have known quite a few of these damaged descendants who speak of this pilgrimage as some sort of life-altering moment of “healing.” A way to connect with the very tangible brutality of the largest iteration of human trafficking the planet has ever known in order to fully wrap their brains around why, we, the descendants of these stolen Africans are still living with the tangible and intangible reminders that our bodies, our lives will forever remain at the mercy of white supremacy.

I have visited Ghana three times. Each time, I have chided myself for not being one of “those” African Americans. To have no longing to stand where my great-great-gran stood as her breasts were exposed and her child ripped from them right before she would be stacked into a boat as if she were merely a log among many and raped repeatedly on the plantation where she would be worked like a mule before dropping dead and being buried (if she were lucky) in a makeshift grave behind the crops that nobody cared about. “Maybe I will take the bus up to Cape Coast and give it a shot,” I said to one of “those” African-Americans on my first visit to Ghana. She was on a one-year contract teaching at a new fashion program in East Legon. She described the experience as all the others had. “Powerful. Coming out of that Gate of No Return…I was surprised when I started crying.” Why wouldn’t I want a powerful experience, I told myself. Somehow, I managed to never schedule the trip.

Last week, I avoided the pilgrimage no more. Another African-American woman who lives in Ghana had taken the pilgrimage almost immediately into her relocation. “I only felt pissed, not empowered,” Latoya laughed as she agreed to ask her Ghanaian boyfriend for advice on how to navigate the trip with as little drama as possible.

Because If I can speak plainly, Folk…I was not committed enough to this healing moment to deal with the drama that Ghana, in all its vibrancy and excitement, can put one through. “I ain’t going to the Cape Coast castle,” I told Latoya.  “Listen, somewhere in Accra, enslaved Africans had to be sold within a 30-minute tro-tro ride.” I was about 77% certain that the bus that went to Cape Coast had to be boarded at Nkrumah Circle, a large, dusty incomplete construction site that just happened to be the meeting spot for most, if not all, tro-tros in Accra. If you google this transportation hub, you will see that it looks a hot ass mess. I am here to confirm that at certain times of the day, it also smells like hot ass. Since I have also sat on tro-tros at The Circle and waited for the mate to decide there were enough passengers on it to tell the driver to begin our route, I knew that I would be sitting on this hot ass tro-tro in this hot ass smelling bus park early in the morning for a good hour before we started our FOUR – SIX HOUR ride up to Cape Coast. I also can attest to the truth of an article I saw making its rounds on Facebook citing Ghana as the second hardest country in which to find an actual toilet. I have done things of which I will never speak when in Accra and nature called and I could not put it on hold any longer.

I watched Roots and read it, too. My commitment to connecting to my history had been proven by the time I was a teenager.

“My sweetie says there is one in Jamestown and we can catch a tro-tro at the Dansamon roundabout to get there.” I had no idea where Jamestown was, but I knew the Dansoman roundabout well. I also knew there was a fried chicken place with a toilet and air conditioner within close proximity. Jamestown seemed ideal.

I am willing to accept full culpability for my lack of thoughtful planning before we made it to Jamestown. I made no effort to figure out on which tro-tro to get or where about I should be looking for my stop or even if there would be signage alerting me that I was close to my destination. Solely because of Latoya’s pre-pilgrimage planning we ended up in Jamestown, overlooking a filthy beach that seemed to be a village for the poorest of Ghana’s poor.

My failure to actually fulfill my mission to stand where my great-great gran stood now rests on the shoulders of a charismatic Ghanaian man who went by the moniker “Nice One.”

I don’t know how we met Nice One, actually. It seems like we just hopped off the tro-tro and he was magically there. “You need a guide?,” he smiled. Then, he told us how much we had to pay him. It seemed like Nice One came with the package – tro-tro ride, slave castle, Nice One.

I made it explicitly clear that we were there just to see the slave castle. No, we did not want to go to the top of the lighthouse where we could get an aerial view of the filthy beach we were now standing on. Yes, it was fine for him to take us through the town and give us some (rather thin and possibly inaccurate) history of the area. But, essentially, we wanted to see the slave market.

I did predict some tom foolery might ensue when Nice One nonchalantly announced we would tour the fishing village and neighboring town FIRST since “the man with key to slave market…not there yet.”  We were assured that he would be back by the time we had looked around Jamestown.

Nice One showed us the pub where he takes his lady friends. “I am very popular in Jamestown,” he confessed to us. “Because I am the King of Kokro Bite, people here know me.” I was unsure why we were in a bar that seemed to have a dearth of alcohol on the shelves and an owner who looked confused when he was introduced by Nice One as “my friend…he owns this place.” Having traveled fairly often around Africa, at this point, I knew not to question the course this tour was taking. We were in someone’s living room which, in addition to a worn sofa, had a worn bar table with a bottle or two of beer on it. This was just the way it was. The way it would be.

“If you ever come back to Jamestown, you should come here. It is slow now because it is early, but at night…” Nice One made a movement with his hips that could have either meant we should come here if we really wanted to do some low down dirty dancing or if we wanted to prostitute ourselves. I did not ask for clarification.

We somehow ended up at the premier guest house of Jamestown, where if we had too much to drink at the pub around the corner and did not feel like going back home, we could rent a room for 12 USD. The owner, who also happened to be Nice One’s friend, assured us that our fee would include hot water.  As if we would not believe the marketing ploy of the owner, Nice One himself verified, “Yes, there will be hot water. This is a nice place; I take my girlfriends here sometimes…when I can not go home.”

By the time we ended up in the courtyard of the palace of the king (not Nice One, obviously) where Nice One took over the soccer game of some random school children, I decided I needed to ask: “So….uhm….Nice One…the slave castle?” I point to the fort-looking structure across the street. Nice One becomes sheepish. He begins talking to one of the school children in Twi and then looks crestfallen.

“This one here…he tells me. The man with the key…he is not here.”

Latoya and I are not terribly incredulous. She has lived in Ghana for almost three years and I have lived in Rwanda for nearly two. We know there probably is no guy. No key. This fort looks conducive to selling human beings so it may have been an actual slave market many centuries ago. It may have just been a prison then as the sign says it is now. I feel like I must make the effort, though. When so many of my counterparts have invested THOUSANDS of dollars to have this moment of healing, I have to push this tour-gone-awry back on track considering I have only invested a few hundred bucks to be in our ancestral homeland.

“Well, did you ask this child when the man might be back?”

“You know, it is Christmas. He is in the North.”

Although Christmas was at least 8 full days ago, I give this man that may or may not exist the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he wanted to extend his holiday well into the new year. I continue to press Nice One, however.

“But, is he on his way back from the north? Will he be here tomorrow?”

Nice One says something to the child who looks like all children do when adults ask too many follow up questions.

“He says…he does not know.”

“So, basically the man with the key to the gate of no return will not be returning?”

Nice One perks up and looks more victorious than he should. “Yes, yes, you understand.”

And here is when I knew I had failed. I did not mourn the absence of the quintessential moment an African American with means can experience in post-colonial times. I did not think to myself, I have a few more days here before I return to the Eastside. I can suck it up, go to The Circle tomorrow and just head up the coast. What I thought was: I am hot. I have to shit. I am also slightly hungry.

I ended the day I had planned to live out my good African-American moment of healing by engaging in a time-honored African-American stereotype. The fried chicken was mediocre at best. The air conditioner was better. I did, in fact, take an absolutely life-altering shit.

 

That Island Life

Back in 2008, when Barack Obama had just won his first term as president of the United States, one of the many empty critiques of his freshman year of service was the vague complaint that he was too aloof. Too calm. “We need to see that he is ANGRY.” I remember these critiques well because I heard them not only from the standard racists who liked to pretend they were mere political pundits, but also from other black people – both those who thought of him as God and those who were unsure of his ability to lead even though they stood in line for several hours to vote for him. Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator from the hit show, Key and Peele, was a satirical way of implying that President Obama was too blasé about many of the jabs blatantly thrown at him by the Republican party.

“Uhm…Island life,” was my friend’s shrugged response to the complaints that our president wasn’t “angry” enough. Tamara grew up in Hawaii, only coming in mainland to New York City as a college student. I doubt that even to this day the woman owns a proper pair of shoes. (For a work party once, she actually asked if she should wear her dress up flip flops.) She maintained that no one from she and the president’s home state probably saw President Obama’s chill level as a flaw. “I doubt any Hawaiian even noticed he was chilled out most of the time. Like, did you ever notice your Southern accent when you were growing up in New Orleans?”

Intellectually I understood Tamara’s analogy, but I did not understand it personally.

Until…

I came to the islands to end all islands…the Seychelles off the coast of East Africa. I have only been here five days and will be leaving right after Christmas, but I can see Tamara’s point already.

It is really hard to get yourself too wound up when you are surrounded by gorgeous waves of clear water bordered by lush greenery and gigantic boulders that look like they have been chiseled by sculptors into clever puzzles for your brain to figure out.

I have not driven regularly in 15 years. But the people who insisted I needed a car to navigate Mahe, the main island on which I would be staying, gave me the keys to this itty bitty Hyundai with the steering wheel on the right side. They then told me “Good luck” with a smile and walked off like I had not just been given a woefully incorrect car. Once driving on the streets of Mahe, I was even more perplexed as to why these people with their wrong cars were also driving on the wrong side of the street.

But, for some reason, I find it difficult to get vexed each and every time I am driving up a hill only to have another itty bitty vehicle all of a sudden facing me. It is rather funny, actually. And the many drivers who I nearly rear end when I have to back up in the middle of the only narrow road to turn around and then drive forward because I did not back up enough to turn properly, then back up again because I still underestimated how much I needed to turn…well, they are noticeably different in their responses than when I have done this during holiday breaks back home in New Orleans. I don’t even recall hearing a horn being furiously blown and sometimes when I look in the rearview mirror during my third time backing up, the driver behind me is simply shaking his head in amused disbelief. Not even a frown.

This morning, I found ants in the sugar jar of the little studio apartment I booked through Airbnb. “Ants in my sugar,” I mused. “Perhaps I will not need sugar in my coffee after all. Perhaps I do not need coffee. I need to go to the beach.” I then gingerly put the top back on the sweetened home of my ant friends and got in my itty bitty, woefully incorrect Hyundai and proceeded to spend 4 minutes backing it up and turning it around to get it out of the security gate.

I think I felt my deepest connection to our president when I thought I broke the washing machine in my little studio and had to tell my host. Through the screen door that led into her house, I saw her sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine.

“Uhm, Marlaine…I think I pressed the wrong button on the machine or something,” I stammered. “There was a puddle of water on the floor. I mopped it up and hung the mats out to dry, but I don’t know what I did to the washing machine. Sorry.”

She laughed and called her husband. “Alex, isn’t this funny? The machine at the salon and at the apartment BOTH broke today.”

Alex found this funny, too. He took a sip of whiskey and waved me off.

“I will look at the machine later. Marlaine needs more wine. She has been sick for two days so she has not been able to drink.”

Then, Marlaine began to tell me how miserable she has been subsisting on water alone. She goes on to share gossip that her clients at her hair salon shared with her while she put highlights in their hair and trimmed their tresses.

Alex pours himself more whiskey and realizes he is “being very rude, shame on me” and asks me if I want a glass, too.

Neither of these people mentions the washing machine again.

Island life.

All These People And All The Things They Need To Learn

I have been teaching adolescents for a decade now. In that time, I have had the sage advice of my graduate school professors proven over and over again. Children learn best when you don’t “tell” them stuff, but guide them to or through an experience that will lead to their own understanding.

I have made the choice to allow this method of teaching to trickle into my non-school life as well. See, I have been living in Africa for a year now. I was once new to this continent. I once needed to learn. When people took that old school approach to teaching and learning (“No, Keturah, don’t go into the bank when you have somewhere else to be in 3 days.”), I did not heed such warning because I felt like I was being “taught.” Now, when people led me through learning experiences (“I guess if you really want to ask for a refund on this service that was totally effed up and not what you requested, then go head on, give it a go, girl”), I have truly owned this new information and used it to adjust my expectations.

There are so many people who come here from so many places who need to learn so many things.

Take for instance, my friend, “Paulina.” She came here from London. She came here needing to get a very important multi-paged, multi-colored document printed for work . She also needed multiple copies of this multi-paged, multi-colored document. And she needed it printed in a timely fashion. There were so many things I wanted to tell Paulina. I tried to suggest that perhaps her order was a bit too complicated. She did not hear my effort to teach her about the difference in printing something that seems simple here and in London. When she sent the printer one version and then changed it a day or two later, I wanted to say: “You know, the printer probably never paid attention to that second one, right? You might want to…” But, I held my tongue. When Paulina went to the printer to pick up her order, I sent her an emoticon giving a hug in response to her text saying: WTF, this is a hot ass mess. Because I kept my mouth shut this time, Paulina came to her own understanding. “I think I might need to send him a much simpler version,” she said to me after her second trip to the printer and encountering an even hotter mess than the first time.

These new foreigners all need to learn how to order in restaurants. Someone needs to tell them that although all the blogs said that English has been the “official” language of Rwanda for five whole years now, there are more than a few non-privileged Rwandans who never learned their old “official” language of French completely. And among the ones who did master fluency in it early on in their lives, this English thing was only enforced in their schools five years ago – when none of their teachers could speak it and were expected to teach in it and their mama’nems had no clue what the hell anyone was saying when they used it so they would revert back to French or their real language, Kinyarwanda, when they were supposed to be speaking their new “official” language of English.

I want to tell these Americans that all this English they keep throwing out there to waiters does not go down easier just because they say it with gigantic, goofy smiles and at decibels that disturb other diners.

I wanted to teach this American lady so badly the other day when I was having dinner with my homeboy who used to need to learn these things, too.

We were in the latest Indian restaurant to open in Kigali. This way too friendly American lady answered a simple question from the waitress (“And for your drink, Madam?”) with a long ass diatribe about how much she really liked African beer. She went on and on about her friend who back packed through Tanzania once and tried this beer in Zanzibar and raved about it and she had forgotten the name of it and did the waitress know what it might be and she knew she wanted beer, but if she couldn’t have this Tanzanian beer, what might the waitress suggest.

The American lady mistook the waitress’s silent smiling as a sign of some sort of successful communication, of course. Remembering all the waitresses I had put through similar awkward situations when I was still learning myself, I chimed in. “You know what beer is good here, Miss? Skol. You should get a Skol.” I even went further in my progressive teaching approach and explicitly stated, “Order a small Skol. Tell her you want it cold.”

The Americans are often the hardest to teach.

Right when the waitress was about to walk off, this chick decides she needs to know how the beer is packaged. “Is that in a bottle or a can because I like the taste of can better than bottle and….”

As she hurled another long, wordy story at this woman who nodded her head the proper number of times and managed to say, “No problem” when there were definitive pauses, my homeboy and I looked at each other and decided to let this interaction take its natural course.

Because this lady needed to learn.

20 minutes later, I saw the waitress heading towards the lady’s table with two Heinekens. In bottles.

“And so it begins,” my homeboy chuckled as the waitress sat both beers in front of the woman who was dining alone.

“But, wait…I thought I ordered…” The woman stumbled her way through another wordy soliloquy about being misunderstood and wanting to send back the beer when the waitress had already TAKEN THE TOP OFF OF ONE OF THE BOTTLES.

“I don’t understand why you can’t take it back.”

Of course you don’t, American Lady. But, soon, you will.

I want to explain to her how all expectations of getting a beverage replaced should just be sentenced to the back of one’s mind when said beverage has already been opened, but I see she is not ready for this lesson. She is staring at the waitress who has walked off to another table and wondering out loud, “I guess I can understand how she brought me the wrong beer, but why would she bring me two?”

When the waitress comes back to our table, I see the woman looking at her, wondering if she should make an issue out of what she truly believes is a major problem with her dining experience. My teacher instincts kick in and I decide to capitalize off what we in the profession refer to as a teachable moment and model to her what she SHOULD have done.

“African tea, please.”

“Big or small?”

“Small.”

“Would you like milk?”

“No problem.”

“And sugar?”

“No problem.”

“And for your meal?”

I slowly and carefully open my menu and point to #101.

“This one – the chicken karma.”

My homeboy adds, “And we would like two orders of naan.”

The woman looks unsure and begins, “I do not know if we have. It might be finished. I will need to check.”

We both chime in, “No problem.” And then my homeboy says, ” No bread. Bring rice. Muracoze cyane.”

When the waitress strolls off, I look towards the woman and realize she has not been paying attention as I diagrammed this goddamn sentence right in front of her.

I shrug my shoulders and accept she will be that student. When she is one half credit away from almost not graduating with her friends because she blew off that one gym class freshman year, she will learn.

Things I Need Jesus to Fix

Dear African Jesus,

I trust this letter finds you in good health. Hopefully, you are also prosperous and happy.

Jesus, my grandmama said you can fix things. She routinely called on you to fix me, my mama and even her bread pudding on those rare occasions when it didn’t turn out right. So, here I am imploring you, African Jesus, to summon up your fixing skills for me. Because I really like living in Africa. I truly do. I love (most) African people and admire (some) African customs. So, please do not mistake this request for your help as a complaint or a critique of my ancestral homeland and its current residents, but…

Bruh, there are so many things I need you to fix. For the sake of time and efficiency, I have compiled a list. I believe in valuing people’s time so I thought long and hard about what things needed to be fixed most and was able to narrow it down to only three. I thank you in advance for reading it with care and addressing my concerns in a timely fashion.

1. Please fix Souda. I know it is a great privilege to afford a housekeeper. Particularly, one as diligent and loyal as Souda. But, look…this woman is stressful sometimes. She really likes to gossip and insists on informing me of all the unseemly activities happening among everybody else living on the compound. There are some things I do not want to know. I do not want to know that the young woman who lives below me may be a prostitute. I mean, I admit I have wondered how a girl her age who is fresh out of university with no job can afford to live on this compound in this neighborhood, but how she pays her rent is really not my business, now is it. Souda seems to think it is. In her basic English, she excitedly relays stories of “Her house girl tell me, she say she saw man and he reached here at night, but did not stay” and I am left to wonder if my neighbor is just a gorgeous young woman who enjoys the pleasure of the flesh or a Rwandan version of a high class call girl. I do not want to be thinking of such things when I come home and she chats with me about how wonderful it would be to have someone write her an invitation letter to acquire an American visa. I also do not want to think about the family who lives in the other house on the compound. Souda seems to be convinced that the husband “like to be inside too many women too much.” When I talk to this man’s 6 year old son about his swimming lessons and asks his wife to give me a ride to work during rainy season, I do not want to wonder if he really is a whore and if this is why his wife always seems to look anxious when I casually mention that her husband was kind enough to give me a ride back home when I saw him in town Sunday.

2. These damn dogs got to go. When I first moved here, Jesus, there were only two dogs. I woke up one morning and there was a puppy yelping outside my door and following me down the hill that leads to the gate. I tried to get the story of the puppy from Freudy, the gate guard. But, we have not yet developed a series of hand gestures and incomplete, largely incoherent sentences in Kinyarwanda and English to have this particular conversation. All I know is this new damn dog allowed these other two dogs to influence his behavior immediately. He, too, now jumps on me and paws around my feet whenever I enter or leave the compound. I really need this ritual to end. I want only one dog on the compound. Actually, I don’t like any of these dogs. They have no home training.

3. I just want peace, Jesus. Peace. I am aware of the conflicts in The Congo. And Burundi..goodlawdinheaven…Burundi…is it still on fire? I openly admit that with the instability in the region it is pretty damn ballsy for me to ask you to fix the drama on this compound. Whoring Husband apparently wants to fire Freudy because “him know too much.” Souda says while some of us were traveling this summer, Whoring Husband took full advantage of Anxious Wife and Cute Son being away. “Many women come to the house. Freudy see them. Now, he want to cancel Freudy.” According to Souda, now that all of us on the compound have returned from our summer vacations, the husband is going to meet with us and lobby for why we need to have a new gate guard. The (possible) prostitute has apparently abandoned her baby. I am not sure where she is, but when I left six weeks ago the baby and the house girl were the only ones in her house. And the last several days, I have heard the screeching baby (who no doubt is so unruly because I am told babies, in general, need their mothers) at all hours of the day and night. The only other voice I hear is that of the house girl speaking softly to her most times. Whoring Husband is Rwandan so I think he is trying to locate (possible) prostitute’s parents to ask them in their language to come get their grandbaby. But, if Souda’s stories about him are true, then he already has a full schedule of extramarital affairs to occupy his non-work hours so who will come get this screeching baby?

4.I know I said there would only be three pressing issues on this list, but the dogs just broke the pump on the water tank and I need to take a shower.

Where you at, African Jesus?

Where.

You.

at?

The Male Luxury of Safety

A recurring question I get as a woman who travels alone is: Are you ever afraid? This question has taken many forms, appearing as the following queries: Don’t you think it is smarter to wait until some of your friends want to go with you? But, didn’t something bad happen to some woman at some time in that place you are going? Recently, a male poster in a travel group I belong to on Facebook remarked that Black women, particularly, allow the vague possibility of gender violence and racism to restrict their movements around this incredibly beautiful planet. Something about this man’s well intended advice to “don’t let fear stop you” bugged me. As I and several Black women in the group called him out on his rather dismissive tone when discussing a very pertinent reality for women in general, but for women of color, specifically, I found myself thinking about the many “Are you ever afraid” questions I have fielded over the years from concerned family and friends. A part of me agreed with this man’s posting that the fears we imagine turn out to be far worse than the actual experience once we have the courage to live it. However, there was a quiet condescension underlying his repeated “No, I know gender violence is a reality, but, I am just saying…” He was somewhere on the opposite side of the spectrum than my friends and family. While they assumed any foreign country a woman explored on her own held the ceaseless potential of gang rapes and kidnappings, he seemed to blithely downplay that gender violence with a touch of general devaluing of black life does, in fact, loom over Black women’s travels even when there is no real or perceived threat to them.

In Zanzibar, when a man identifying himself as a “police officer” stopped my tour guide and me, I was not terribly concerned. Although it was Ramadan, I was aware that I had not fully covered myself like the local women. I was a tourist. In the biggest tourist trap in Tanzania. I have never traveled to any conservative culture where the locals actually expected me to completely model their customs and expectations, even the ones pertaining to female modesty. It seemed to be understood that I should not ignore the customs, but making effort to be more modest in my dress (even by Western standards) was enough to show respect. Hence, my ankle-length maxi dress with no V-neck or any similar cleavage-exposing cut struck me as perfectly fine.

“The dress is too tight and your shoulders are exposed.” The police officer had been conversing back and forth in Swahili with Sole for a few minutes before I assessed that the tone of their back and forth was sedate enough for me to stick my nose into the problem.

This dress is tight? And no disrespect, but a whole lot of women are strolling around wearing spaghetti strap tanks.” I was truly flabbergasted as I had worn this dress all day – through Stonetown, the Spice Plantation, Prison Island – with no looks of disapproval from men, absolutely no side eye from the Muslim women I passed who were fully covered from head to toe.

There is annoyed backtalk from Sole, who tells this man that I am not his girlfriend, but client. That of course I am not dressed like the Muslim women around me because I am a tourist like everybody else. That he is wasting our time. The call to prayer has just gone off, which means we can finally eat. “We are very hungry and were heading to the Square.”

“Get in the car so we can drive to a less crowded area and I can talk to both of you further.”

I look at this “police officer” who is not wearing a uniform and his two companions who do not strike me as remotely official. My eyes turn to the vehicle in front of me that does not have the words “Zanzibar Police Department” emblazoned on them. I think about the assumptions this man has made about my life. The confusion he will undoubtedly feel when I tell him the following: “Sir, I don’t get into cars with strange men in my own country, where I actually speak the language fluently. I don’t plan on taking up this habit in a foreign country.”

Sole explains that this man is the leader of the “community police,” which I translate into, The Captain of the Neighborhood Watch. I still look at all the men present as if they are mildly retarded to truly expect me to just hop in a car with four strange men.
I can tell that they have no idea of the gravity of what they have asked me to do. The Neighborhood Watch Captain says that he has been given the responsibility to “watch out” for foreign women during fasting because locals take the laxness in following the dress code personally during this period. There have been incidents of neighborhood men harassing women who do not at least cover up their arms.

Sole tries to reassure me. “There is no reason to be afraid. They are harmless and you are my responsibility. I will not let anything happen to you.”

Oh, how simple it all is in the world of men. Hakuna Matata, Sole is advising me. My concerns are unfounded. There is no reason to think anything untoward would occur. Why would I not trust him to protect me? This man who I only know because five hours ago, the hotel said: “This is Sole. He will show you the city.” Why would I even think that these men I do not know who may or may not have been elected by a community of people I do not know would hurt the very person I am not even confident they were actually instructed to protect.

“Look, I am not getting in your car. I will drape these trousers I just bought around my shoulders and answer any questions you have.”

30 minutes later, the Neighborhood Watch has been given about 10,000 shillings and I have been chastised again by the captain. Sole and I are eating dinner on the Square. He is still grumbling about how much of a pain in the ass the community police were, pointing me out to several food vendors who agree with him that there is nothing inappropriate about my attire. While they are all up in arms about the injustice Sole is decrying, I am thinking about the ease with which I was told not to worry about my safety. The befuddlement as to why I, a woman traveling alone in a foreign country, would be hesitant and downright defiant about getting into a car with almost half a dozen strange men and being driven off to some unnamed place. This confident posture of Hakuna Matata when it concerns your body – your right to it, your agency over it. What an enviable luxury it must be to assume that everyone, everywhere believes you have that right, will allow you to dictate what can and cannot be done with your very person.

As I finish my grilled squid, I remember the posts of the women in the Facebook travel group: “I always google violence against women before I go anywhere.” “It must be nice not to have to think about your personal safety all the time and just, like, pack some trunks and then be on your way.” Repeatedly, Black women spoke about the very real message they get all around the world: Your body is available to anyone who decides he wants it. To do whatever he pleases with it. I think about that brother who kept following up his “support” of Black women’s right to feel safe with that very revealing conjunction: “I hear what you ladies are saying, BUT…”

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?

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.

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.”

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