As those of you who follow this blog, or who know me personally, are aware, I lived in Rwanda for two and a half years in the mid-90s. You may also know that my latest manuscript, Kwizera Means Hope, is inspired by my time in Rwanda. So here are some lessons – some have made their way into the book, others have not.
Luggage lost, culture found
I arrived at Entebbe airport in Uganda to be the administrator for a humanitarian organization operating in northern Rwanda. I was on a six-month contract. So I packed six months’ worth of toiletries. The bag with the toiletries arrived at Entebbe with me. The bag of clothes did not.
I only had a pair of jeans, two long-sleeved shirts, two pairs of socks, a pair of hiking boots, a pair of Teva sandals, a nightshirt, two pairs of underwear and one bra.
The logistics officer in the Kampala office helped me make a claim with the airline and buy underwear. We walked into a small shop near the central market, with a counter along three walls. When a salesman greeted us, Florence asked, “Do you have bras?” The man nodded. “Tiny bras? For her?”
I already stood out as the palest person in the joint. Now I was also the reddest.
When I got to our office in Kabale, Uganda, just across the border from Rwanda, one of the drivers took me to the second-hand clothing market. I purchased two skirts, an orange t-shirt and a rain jacket. Our secretary, Mary, took me to the weekly market to buy fabric called gitenge that the women wear wrapped around their lower bodies like a skirt, or to sleep in, or as a shawl, or to relax in after a long day teaching people hygiene. I had two that I alternated with the skirts.
My Ugandan and Rwandan teammates were impressed that I would wear their clothing. It helped me fit in with them and be accepted. It also gave me something to wear.
Fourteen years later, I still wear my gitenge as a summer robe, a sarong, to sleep in, or over a bathing suit.
Crying over spilled milk
Carrying a big metal can of milk in the bed of a pick up truck over bumpy, unpaved hills usually leads to milk sloshed all over the bed of said pick up. Add to this the equatorial sun and you have one smelly, stuck-on mess. Have you ever smelled sour milk?
I learned several lessons that day. Tie the milk-can better. Stick to paved roads. If you must bump across unpaved hills, do it during the rainy season for easy clean-up. And lastly, whole milk fresh from the cow, which must be boiled and kept warm since the electricity could go out any minute, is really yummy in tea.
What’s for dinner? Beans!
I grew up in a suburb of New York City in a middle-class Jewish home. My mother was a great cook – Steak Diane, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Saltimbocca, Quiche Lorraine, along with comfort foods like chili, tacos, tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese, pork chops, baked chicken, beef stew. We did not eat beans (except in the chili).
In Rwanda, we ate beans with every lunch and dinner. We usually had beef or chicken, vegetables and starches, and beans. In the internally-displaced persons camps within Rwanda and the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, Rwandans were given beans by aid organizations. Beans were the most readily available protein in the markets.
What did I learn? I love beans! I still eat beans –pinto beans in chili and tacos, black beans in Brazilian Feijoada with pork and orange, white beans in cassoulet or on bruschetta with sage and pancetta, chick peas in fresh hummus, or curried lentils.
My mother’s great cooking from different European traditions may have set me on the path to becoming a foodie, but my time in Rwanda was the perfect middle. The story continues with me marrying a chef who is just as interested in the cuisines of the world as I am.
People in countries all over the world enjoy beans. Here’s to beans!
I used to think of myself as a quiet, mousy person who didn’t stand up for herself and didn’t raise her voice. On my college’s crew team, I was the tallest but quietest coxswain. In grad school I participated as little as possible. Okay, I fought back with my little brother, but that’s the way siblings are, right?
Then I found myself in a developing country with a job that was the most important thing I had ever done in my life. I found my voice. And my temper.
I yelled when someone asked me for money for a program the morning they needed it, rather than giving me time to get to the bank more than an hour away. I shouted when a driver didn’t show up where he was supposed to be without an excuse I could understand. I snapped at anyone who was near when I discovered that I’d need yet another trip to the border to get a shipment of medical supplies cleared through customs, after spending the previous three days traveling between the border, our office, the airport and the capital, filling out forms, talking to various mid-level bureaucrats and fending off the romantic advances of several of those bureaucrats. I had a screaming fight with the regional labor officer when he told me I couldn’t fire the driver who had driven one of our vehicles while drunk and crashed it into the church. And I had a massive argument with my team leader about whether to pay local clinic staff salaries even though the government hadn’t yet decided how much we should pay (he wanted to wait for the government, I wanted to pay them something right away).
Once I learned I had a temper, I was able to learn how to keep it in check.
Prostitution and AIDS
Well-dressed young women hanging out at bars and nightclubs frequented by foreigners. An English mechanic’s housekeeper-cum-girlfriend. What do they have in common? The foreign men who pay them for sex, for the short-term or long-term.
Oh, and did I mention that the mechanic had a wife and children back home in England? I don’t mean to pick on the English. I saw the same thing happen with Belgian men, and heard about plenty of other expatriates enjoying the company of pretty Rwandan girls, then paying for their clothes or food for their families.
So prostitution has been around forever, right? Yes, but now AIDS has entered the picture.
These girls know they could die of AIDS by the time they turn twenty-five. And they don’t care. For a few years they are taken care of, well-fed, well-dressed, and they don’t have to work in the fields.
I learned that these girls would rather die young than work as farmers. I learned that many men are pigs. I learned that the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa is the longest uphill battle you could ever imagine.