Over the river and through the banana palms
More recycled people! That’s basically what I’ve been finding every time I go out…Boniface and I take the Land Cruiser out to a remote area, and, using a list of Rwandans who have repatriated in 2004, 2005, and 2006, look for their residences. If we’re lucky, we find them and interview them about their lives and about how they’re reintegrating into their communities.
We also ask people in the villages if they recognize the names of the people on our list. Most of them don’t. This is normal in a place like Fairfax or Alexandria, because the population is comparatively large. But in these tiny villages of 50-100 people, everyone knows everyone else, and if a name is not recognized, it can safely be said that the name on our list isn’t real. That is, a Rwandan left their community, went to Congo, came back through the border, and claimed to be returning to Rwanda for the first time, using a name they’ve made up.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, there’s a lot to gain. We give out a kitchen set, a plastic tarp, a hoe, food for 2-3 months, and other items. The plastic tarp alone sells for $10, which is, for some, a month’s income. Spending a whole day in the field and not finding a single person can be exasperating (I don’t want to think about how inflated our lists are!), but it is nice to get out of dusty Gisenyi town and into the hilly banana plantations, where the air is fresh and smells like grass and smoke.
You can tell when you’ve left the beaten path by the way that people greet you. Near the main roads, all you hear is “Agacupa! Agacupa!” (a cry for plastic water bottles), or “Amafaranga!” (a cry for money). Children outstretch their hands, hoping for a handout.
In the backwater areas, everyone waves and smiles, from children, to their parents, to the eldest sages of the village. The most common cry (other than the ever-present “muzungu!” which is actually charming because you’re seen as a novelty rather than a bank) is “Komera!” which means “Be strong!” From the delight on the faces of villagers, it’s evident that they are pleased that you have come to see and help their country.
As we drive down the muddy paths, goats and chickens flee while children, hearing the cries of those before them, run out to see what all the commotion is about. (It is interesting to note that the UN Population Fund estimates that 67% of Rwanda’s population is under 25…based on what I have seen in the field, I would judge that 67% of the population is under 15. Babies are EVERYWHERE.)
Once, I asked Boniface to stop the car so I could admire a baby goat, about a week old. Goats are omnipresent in Rwanda (like babies), and I contemplated getting one and keeping it at the office as a pet. (My boss did not agree.) The owner of the goat, surprised that I was so enchanted with an animal that can be found every five feet in this country, was happy to hand him over, through the window of our car, so I could hold him in my lap. It was one of my happiest moments to date, but I smelled like goat poo after I handed him back over. Thank goodness I now have someone to help me wash my clothes.
Almost every house has a stick buried in the mud, to which is tied either a banana palm, a plastic bag, or flowers. A banana palm signifies that the house produces the local banana brew. A plastic bag or flowers signify that the house produces sorghum juice, which tastes like smoked gym socks. I would place it in the category of “acquired tastes.” Further, in front of many houses are inverted, hollowed-out banana palm trunks, which are used to collect rainwater for drinking.
On the subject of houses, there are several types here, of which the icyondo is the most common. An icyondo is a stick and mud house, often covered with plastic sheeting, corrugated metal, reeds, or, if the family is comparatively well-to-do, curved terracotta tiles. Occasionally there are amatafari ahiye, which are brick houses. Up until recently, bricks were made the traditional way—formed and fired in a kiln. The government has banned the cutting of wood for fires (which has had a devastating effect in rural villages), and wood-fired bricks can no longer be made. The alternative has been sun-dried bricks, which do not hold up in the torrential rainy seasons. The poorest villagers have inzu y’ibyatsi, or reed huts. Boniface tells me that this is the favored shelter of the Twa people, the smallest ethnic minority of Rwanda and the original inhabitants of the land.
And, while this doesn’t really fit in anywhere else, I always think it’s interesting when we allow a villager to come with us in our car. We only allow it if the person is a local official, or if s/he knows where to find a returnee. They are so excited to be in a car—for most of these people, it’s the first time they’ve ever been inside one! This is most evident by the fact that the vast majority do not know how to open the door; we have to show them how. Sometimes I turn on the music for them to enjoy, and, if it’s raining, the air conditioning. People in cars (particularly UN cars) are seen to be privileged, so the villagers love to come with us. It’s heartwarming to see how thrilled they are by something to which we Westerners are so accustomed.