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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.

 

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?

Real Talk: On Being Black American in Africa

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

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

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

When You Realize That You, Too, Are a Colonizer

I possess a blue passport.

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

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

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

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

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

When You Trade Unapologetic Racism for Unrelenting Sexism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, I am done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Mission: Fighting the Theft of Girls’ Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are they silent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yara remains silent.

“Let’s hear it,” I insist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When A Communicator Can’t Communicate: The Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

I could just speak English.

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

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

But as for those other times…

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

Scenario 1:

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

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

Me: (Blank stare)

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

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

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

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

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

Scenario 2:

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

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

Waitress: Really? No?

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

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

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

Waitress: No, that will not be necessary.

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

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

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

Beautiful Women Hurt More Than Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My family was murdered in 1994.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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