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‘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.

 

 

Upon Realizing I Have Lived Abroad for Over a Year

Fifteen months ago, I left a job that I loved in a city that I loved and a relationship with a man I loved to move to Rwanda. I could not name the thing I was looking for that would prompt me to uproot my comfortable life and embark on this new one that I had only vaguely identified as a necessity for reasons I could not clearly articulate to myself, let alone others.

At fifteen months in, I have been on some rather lavish vacations that allowed me the privilege of experiencing the beauty and ugliness of Africa in all its unapologetic extra-ness. I have had to repeatedly turn into Ugly Keturah, complete with raised voice and unholy language, to put a shockingly sexist man in his place and I have stopped speaking in mid-sentence to gawk at the overwhelming beauty of rolling hill upon rolling hill as the sun set over the most lush, green terrain I have ever seen.

I find myself contemplating what exactly I have gained from this year. Why exactly am I certain that I will not be returning to the states anytime soon even though I have had just as many moments of sadness as I have had moments of joy in this land where the people look like me, but I can not claim any more authentic ownership of it than the foreigners who self-consciously roam through the streets uncomfortably aware of their white skin for the first time in their lives.

My biggest take away thus far? It is me and only me. No other than me.

I do not love Rwanda. Depending on the day you ask me, I might not even claim to like it very much. There is a disturbing quiet to Kigali that should not exist in any modern-day city. There is a distance, a misleading “politeness” of the people that feels like a shield, a mask that I am not allowed to mention, much less reach out to touch or remove. I know the history, and more importantly, I know my place. It is not for me to question why these people carefully display only one emotion in any given situation nor is it within my pay grade to even semi-adequately critique how well their ways of coping with their pain actually accomplish the goal of healing what hurts. All I know is something feels superficial about this place. Like just bubbling beneath the surface is a deep, throaty wail waiting to be released. A lost of composure long overdue that might go on for too long and frighten too many people.

Kigali is too small. It breeds a small mindedness. A non-stop silent analysis of my every move and motive.

And yet, I have been and remain happy here. Because it is not Kigali’s responsibility to make me happy. It is mine.

I took a teaching job at a school that has no idea what it wants to be. There are people at this school who are earnest and hard working, but who are not quite sure what a school is supposed to be. As often happens in international schools, the student body is just as transient as the faculty. Yesterday, a 9th grade student returned his copy of Things Fall Apart to me, casually mentioning he would not be coming back to school on Monday. “My dad’s job is moving us back to Wisconsin; I think we leave on the 18th.” This young man showed up to our school last May. Just as abruptly. Just as casually. We accept students who speak absolutely no English who have spent their entire lives in French-speaking schools and/or being taught under a wildly different curriculum and hope everything will work out. (We have not really defined what “work out” means, either.)

And yet, I lam still grateful to have been given the opportunity to begin my career as an international teacher at this school. I still devote shameful amounts of my head space to  figuring out how to master this unmasterable art of teaching. How to be compassionate and influential to students who might well be the future assholes of the world without even trying. I still want to hug my students and my colleagues as much as I want to strangle them.

It is not my school’s responsibility to make me a better educator. It is not my students’ duty to inspire me to love them. Both of those jobs belong to me. And only me.

So, here is what I am left with when I think about what I have gained from this year abroad.

I have gained more of me.

 

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?

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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