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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.”

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.

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