I needed a lime last night. This thought coaxed my mind out of the pleasant abyss of sunset-covered hills as I sat comfortably atop a motorcycle taxi. So, after thanking my escort (Marakoze chane) and delivering an obligatory 1,000 RWF ($1.50 U.S.), I proceeded to walk down the cobblestone street to my house, stopping at one of at least 15 mom-and-pop stalls selling bananas, samosas, toilet paper and air time (pay-as-you-go cell phone credit). I pointed at a lime as the sun dipped behind one of a thousand hills.
I steeled my resolve as I glanced in my dust-covered wallet. A few large notes and exactly 100 RWF in coins. Necessity is the mother of haggling.
“100,” I said firmly.
My haggling partner held out 3 limes. “500 total,” he said.
I took one lime and handed the man 100 RWF.
“Oh, poor Mzungu,” he began, pityingly, “Do you not have enough money? I will buy these for you.” He began to hand me all three limes as I started for home.
“No, that’s okay, one is fine,” my smile now stretched across the width of my face. I thanked him and continued walking.
This is Kigali. Perhaps not all of Rwanda, but Kigali. Negotiations remain tame, Mzungus raise few eyebrows, and “innocent”, baby-faced mzungus like me even elicit pity. I live in a well-to-do subdivision of Kigali called Kanombe, a 5-minute walk from Kigali International Airport (the 7th best regional airport on the African continent, so reads a sign plastered above the conveyor belts at baggage claim). While WiFi, running water, and electricity rarely work in concert, it is also rare to lack all three at the same time. Men, women and children rise with the sun at 6am in my neighborhood and its environs. Some don businesses suits and traipse to work in government offices or the up-and-coming tech, banking, and eco-tourism hubs in the city’s center. Others jog along Kigali International Airport Road, gazes fixed straight ahead and not a drop of perspiration to conceal rapid changes in elevation. No one walks barefoot, and no one steps on the grass (both illegal here). The orderly serenity makes my morning and evening commute to Ndera-a rural area twenty minutes outside the city and host to the Gardens for Health farm-that much more of a spectacle, as Mzungus and Rwandans clamor together in the bed of our staff pickup truck and converse in a mixture of Kinyarwanda and English and, to a lesser extent, French and Kiswahili. I spend my 8 to 5 in an “office” where policy dictates that all meetings must be held outside, home-grown produce nourishes staff and community members each day just after noon, lush green landscapes form the view from my desk, and the temperature rests comfortably between 65 and 85 Fahrenheit every day of the year. It’s a rough life.
Lest you envision my existence as an East African utopia, I remind readers that hills-even perfect, blue-green Rwandan hills-have both summits and bases. I am a 22-year-old recent college graduate. And despite being “low-maintenance, high-yield” (thanks Princeton in Africa), I am still learning how to integrate into a new workplace and a new living arrangement. I am still learning how to invest fully in my life here while still cherishing friendships and family relationships back home that form the core of my identity. I am still learning what it’s like to feel dwarfed by the enormity of expectations-others’ and my own-and to confront head-on self-generated accusations of inadequacy. I am still learning who I am outside America, who I am outside my university, and who I am in the tricky purgatory between comfort and unpredictability. But none of these lessons are specific to Rwanda- they are instead unique to young adulthood. I was more or less prepared for the physical realities of Kigali: malaria pills and Imodium, matoke, beans and sukumawiki, red-dirt roads and football pitches, roosters crowing at sunrise and Nigerian and Ugandan pop music at sunset, Primus and Mutzig and yellow jerry cans filled with water ripe for filtration. The landscape of transition is predictable. The timetable of growth is not.
It’s a Woman’s World
64%. Does that number mean anything to you? What about in relation to 20%?
64% of Rwandan parliamentarians are female. The highest proportion in the world. Not on the African continent. In. the. world. Partially as a demographic hologram leftover from the genocide and partially as a result of concerted policy effort, Rwanda remains a beacon of gender equity in ways that transcend the halls of parliament. Impeccable Kigali billboards feature women as businesspeople, entrepreneurs and innovators. Feature stories in the New Times praise the efforts of young women in science and technology. At my workplace, not only do Rwandan and American women equal or surpass men, numerically speaking, as the backbone of organizational leadership-these women also applaud office gender equity dynamics and express gratitude for male refusal to undermine female decision-making and initiative. Kigali is not rural Rwanda. Gardens for Health is not every smallholder farm in Musanze district or every single-mother compound in Gsabo. Across Rwanda’s western border lurks the “Worst Place in the World to be a Woman.” This I wholly refute. But I do not refute that Rwanda is regionally one of the best-an applause worthy assessment that I stand behind.
“People Die in Congo”
I seem to attract Congolese nationals like lightning bugs. Perhaps it is my “Swahili Safi” (local colloquialism for “pure” or standardized Tanzanian, textbook Swahili) or my clumsy, distinctly American French. Perhaps it is the phrase Tuko Pamoja sketched in ink and visible through well-worn flats or Birkenstocks. Perhaps Congolese can sense that Patrice Lumumba ranks in my top ten role models list or that I am itching to drift as close as possible to the Francophone shores of Lake Kivu, constrained as I am by the terms of my fellowship contract. Whatever the cause, I continue to add Congolese of all ages to my list of friends and acquaintances. This reality complicates my affinity for Rwanda, a country scarcely the size of Maryland and yet ripe with beauty, adventure and potential. I chose to abstain from a discussion of regional politics on this forum (those interested may message me individually). In my short time in this region of the world, I continue to learn that human relationships possess infinite potential to muddy political fixtures. Bukavu residents make biannual trips to Kigali to pay routine visits to cousins. University students from Goma meet Rwandan friends for beachfront afternoons in Gisenyi.
“I wouldn’t want to visit Congo,” stated a young Rwandan woman flatly. “People die in Congo.”
“People die in Rwanda.”
“Yes, but people die of wars in Congo. We do not have wars in Rwanda.”
So set ablaze a fire of impassioned rhetoric- rhetoric not to leave the mind of a naïve moral crusader. Problematic, on so many levels, yes. But indicative of the new Rwanda. Indicative of a new, outspoken Rwanda, mindful of its past but positioned solidly within the grasp of 2020: An English-speaking, East African Community, cosmopolitan and tech savvy, “smartly” dressed and country-music loving, middle-income Singapore in the heart of Africa.