Compound life is, as always, busy and in constant motion. I spend a lot of time around our compound and have become integrated into life there. With little to do around the village outside of work (and I use work in a very loose sense of the word, since talking to my neighbors on the way to the market may be considered work in a community developer’s vocabulary) and a lot of extra time on my hands during the evenings and weekends, the compound is my refuge, place to relax, escape from the desperate reality sometimes clawing at my door and consciousness. It is my favorite place to be a part of, and also to watch. Sometimes, I sit in the middle of my living room, doing chores, with the door open in a way that I still have a perfect view of the compound while remaining hidden. And from there, I observe typical African compound life, natural and undisturbed.
There have been some recent happenings and changes around our compound.
First, updates on the newborn baby. The baby is growing, and fast. It seems like only yesterday when he was brought back from the hospital wrapped in a blue blanket, small and fragile-looking, curled in his mother’s arms, like a porcelain doll. Now, he had developed the size and pudginess that you would expect of a baby. His mother carries him outside everyday and sits on a stool in the shade beneath the trees in our front yard. She chortles to him, chirps in her high-pitched voice, and sings songs while gently rocking him. I interrupt this scene every morning on my way to work when I step outside my house and meander over to greet them. She stands him up on her lap, while he yawns or looks around, unimpressed, exclaiming his size and weight. She is a nurse, so she brings him to the community health center regularly to check his growth and development in order to ensuring he is growing at a healthy pace. I concede, saying that he is going to be very tall someday. He is also growing darker. When he first arrived, his skin was light and everyone in the compound commented and laughed that he looked like me. Mama told me that she brought him out in the sun to get vitamin D and a tan. Over the past three months, his skin has darkened and we laugh at the change. Again, skin color is not a cause of discomfort here; it is a refreshing fact of life and people are always laughing at my red and sweaty, not to mention dirty, skin.
It was Bijoux’s birthday the other day, marking my one year anniversary in my home. A year ago, I had just moved into my house and met my neighbors. It is amazing how fast time has passed and how much has changed. Bijoux’s birthday party last year was the first time I spent with my neighbors, my first introduction to their friends, and my first integration into their lives. At the time, I was scared to move from a house I shared with another volunteer to my own shack in a distinctly Rwandan compound. It was the first time I was going to be on my own, in a way that I felt was characteristically Peace Corps. I was unsure of myself and didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t culturally-sensitive, so I walked on constant eggshells trying to impress them and mold myself to the Rwandan way. During that party a year ago, I sat rigid in a chair, trying to understand and converse in my very poor Kinyarwardan with my very new neighbors and friends. I was offered a beer and drank slowly, hardly dancing (unlike the rest of the posy), and excused myself early to go to bed, while they continued to rage early into the next morning. Now, we live in a comfortable harmony. They accept my strange ways, and I allow them to watch me and teach me, although I may grumble a bit when it becomes too overwhelming or obvious. We have our own mutual understanding and acceptance. At this year’s party, I played a more central role, helping with pre-party planning and preparations, and spending the evening conversing and laughing with my adopted family and close friends. Bijoux and I danced together, and then we danced as a group, Mama grabbing my hands and pulling me through the moves. Those two images demonstrate how much has changed, how far I have come, in the course of a year, birthday to birthday. It is also the long break from school, and Bijoux’s days are free. After her birthday, she left to spend a week in the village (a village that villagers in Kiramuruzi call a village) with her grandmother, before returning to the compound. Now, she sits around the compound all day, entertaining herself with the new umucozi, playing volleyball with the neighborhood children, and getting into the harmless mischief that is typical of children when they reach the terrible teen years.
We have a new umucozi. The last two ran off. Based on my observations, I would say that happens quite frequently. Mama explained to me that good umucozis come from the Western Province of the country, what makes them different I don’t know. It seems more like one of those old housewives tales than actual fact. In any case, that is the reason we waited two weeks for a new umucozi from the west. In the meantime, Mama could be seen bending over the coal stove cooking a pot of beans or scrubbing laundry in our yard, a rare occurrence. Bijoux helped, by scrubbing the floors, quite unskillfully and more in dutiful and playful occupation. The new umucozi finally arrived. She is a young girl, again, but I like her much better than the last. Further, she seems unperturbed by living and working next to a muzungu, also unlike the last, which is a huge relief. As to the last two umucozis, well, we don’t know where they have gone- they ran off. The one before last stole a bunch of stuff before hiding the keys in a pot and disappearing. I also heard news of our first and my favorite umucozi, Diane, who left but returned for a month when the baby was born. She moved to Kigali, and just got married. Congratulations to her.
And speaking of new additions to the compound, we now have a couple of goats and a chicken running around in the mix and mess of things. It is my suspicion that they were purchased to be fattened and groomed for a great Christmas feast that will take place next month. Although my neighbors are relatively wealthy, meat is still rare at meals, eaten at most once a week and typically only once a month. Christmas is the one time of year when meat is plentiful, hence the need for a couple of goats and chickens. If they disappear around Christmas, I will know where they went… into the pot and the stomachs of my neighbors. That is the harsh reality of living life so close to the source. There is no distance or degree of separation between us, the consumers, and where our food comes from, like exists in the states. Here, when you go to the restaurant and order a goat brochette, you sometimes see the goat being dragged in by one of its legs and hear it last desperate bah before death. As difficult and inhumane as it may seem, it is also relieving and develops understanding. You know the meat is fresh (and natural) (and healthy), and you see where it is coming from and can appreciate it in a new way. However, my situation does not bring me into much contact with meat or the killing of the animals, as I am quasi-vegetarian by default. After almost two years, I still can’t bring myself to walk into the butcher’s shop in my town, because of all the hanging carcasses, blood and flies, to buy meat. Plus, I wouldn’t know what to ask for because I don’t have much experience with meat, since I was a vegetarian until I joined the Peace Corps, changing my eating habits because I assumed it would be a difficult lifestyle choice to maintain in Africa. I eat a lot of legumes in the place of meat, only indulging in at restaurants where I only witness the sacred goat sacrifice- I don’t have to conduct it. In any case, I’m not sure I would miss the goats and chickens if they did happen to disappear one day, because the other day, I came home from work to find them devouring my tomato plants and rooting in my compost, spreading decomposing food scraps all around my house. Grr! I had to chase them away with my hoe (which became an entertaining sight for my neighbors to witness). I think the goats are already scared of me because of my skin, different than any they have seen. Every morning when I walk outside, the goats run away and hide behind a pile of dirt and rocks in our yard. They don’t when other people walk by, just me. I’ve thought about using my old clothes to construct a scarecrow (I guess more of a scare-all types of animals) in my garden to ward them off. But, then I think what my neighbors would think of me! Oh the crazy muzungu, look what she has done now! They already think me and my garden are weird enough, because I have filled it with lettuce plants, which I eat in salads. You know how they feel about vegetables…
And that brings me to another point of housekeeping, my garden. It is doing wonderfully. Growing, overflowing, in a tangled mess that I barely have time to contain. It has been raining goats and chickens lately (literally, a few landed in my front yard- that’s where they came from!). The other day, I spent some time weeding, cleaning the garden up, replanting and harvesting. It was a beautiful sunny day, and this time I remembered to put sunscreen on my whole shoulders (Last time, I couldn’t quite reach my back and left a strip unprotected, which later turned a painful and uncomfortable red which I noticed when I laid on the ground to do crunches during my workout, instead running in front of my mirror to check the damage). I put my headphones in my ears and pressed play on my ipod, pulled my gloves on my hands, and sat down on the ground, in the dirt, to work. Again, my neighbors think my method of working quiet strange. First, I am meticulous in my work, making sure to pull every weed, unlike Rwandans who throw a bunch of seeds on the ground and watch them grow with little maintenance. Second, WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD SIT ON THE GROUND, IN THE DIRT, AND GET DIRTY!?! A big no-no to Rwandan. Last, they just don’t quite understand the compost. I try to explain, and they nod their heads, but they don’t get it, looking on my pile of decomposing food scraps as a smelly and unpleasant practice. I kind of want to point out the productivity of my garden, despite the fact that they gave me the most infertile corner of the compound and I have grown two seasons worth of food on it. When they raise their eyebrows at this, I want to explain that the reason some of my crops failed is not because I am a poor farmer, as they like to conclude, but that I am trying to grow plants from home, that sometimes just don’t here, for reasons unknown. It’s not my fault, but part of the trial and error method of learning that I am employing in my garden. I am learning a lot, too, may I add, because I have come to the conclusion that there is just no point in growing certain plants, because no matter what I do or the season I plant, I just can’t make them grow. I get down and dirty, dig my hands into the soil and become part of the life I am growing. I feel accomplished when I see the success and progress of my garden and watch the plants grow and flourish. Not to mention, good and healthy when I can enjoy a fresh salad with a basil vinaigrette, with vegetables grown in my own garden. Yes, this season, I opted to desert the carrots and tomatoes, which I can buy in the marketplace for cheap, and devote most of my garden to the production of lettuce. I miss salads with a burning desire. My neighbors think I am strange, but I don’t care. Lettuce enjoy salads until I return home.
The garden is burgeoning with all the rainfall. Unfortunately, I am not. I have finally decided, after two years of weathering the seasons, the extreme heat and the immense rainfall, that I prefer the dry season over the wet. Perhaps last year’s wet season was not so wet, but this one is drenched. Every morning and afternoon, it pours, hard, drops the size of golf balls, I kid you not. My front yard and the dirt road outside my house turn to rushing rivers. The course of the river in my front yard based on the slope and contours of the land, rushes towards my house and diverts downwards in front of my door to run out the drain in the wall in the corner next to my house. Sometimes, when it rains too hard, the river overflows and drains into my house, collecting on the floor in a corner of my living room (where I typically shower because it is the lowest spot). I squeegee the water out my front door with a broom-like squeegee, which is one of the best inventions I have found in Africa. A long handle with a squeegee on the end- Genius! The water evaporates quickly in the heat, and everything in my house just seems damp. In addition to a leaking house, I have also survived a momentous attack of mosquitoes. With more water comes more breeding ground for mosquitoes and they are rampant this time of year. My arms, legs, back, stomach, everywhere, are littered with mosquito bites and I am plagued with a constant desire to itch. I go through anti-itch cream like it is my job- and I suppose a part of it is, living under harsh conditions. Oh mosquitoes! What purpose do you serve? I have always wondered that, and even more now. WHAT PURPOSE? Ecologically-speaking, we are always concerned with the role that species play in the greater system, even if we don’t know or understand that role. We always argue to preserve even the smallest species because we may underestimate their importance and find that they play a much more critical role than we initially expected, changes throwing off an entire ecosystem. What of mosquitoes? Mosquitoes may be the one species I say has absolutely no role and deserves to disappear. Oh, how I loath you and the nights you keep me awake with your tireless taunting, buzzing, and itching! My only escape is under my mosquito net in bed, where I am sitting as I write this. I can hear mosquitoes buzzing past, diving into the net. They are smart little buggers, and I have to tuck the net in around the bed, for they will find even the smallest opening and indulge in their vampireish feast of my body, while I lay there, unknowing or unable to respond. From the safety under my net, I can say confidently, “Take that, you fools! I win!”
The confines of the mosquito net required this time of year leaves little to do at night, since I can’t venture out or sit in the open as I could before during the dry season, when mosquitoes were rare. I read, sew, write, watch movies. Sometimes, I am just bored, but I have created a new pastime for these moments- gecko-watching. My house may be full of mosquitoes, but it is also full of geckos. I like geckos. They are my unknowing allies and conspirators. They also seek to destroy the species of mosquitoes, only for a much more honorable reason and justified way- they eat them. But, geckos are not the sharpest weapon in the box. I watch as a gecko maneuvers across my wall, following the wandering path of a mosquito. The gecko watches the mosquito fly in loops and turns, with no clear purpose or direction. It begins to move, slowly at first, then faster, until it is running at full speed across the wall with its short legs. It comes up close to the mosquito and slows down to a crawl. I can see the determination in its face and eyes. It makes a lunge, but the mosquito floats effortlessly away to another section of the wall. The gecko turns around and follows, moving slowly and carefully, then at greater speed with more purpose, directly for its target. Again, the mosquito eludes the gecko’s charge by drifting away from the wall. The gecko, forgetting that he can’t fly, jumps away from the wall and towards the mosquito with its tongue out hoping to catch the little bugger in its mouth in midair. It misses, hesitates for a second in the air, a flash of panic streaking across its face, before falling to the ground behind a stack of my shoes. I swear it was a scene straight out of the roadrunner cartoon. I am by myself, but I have to laugh out loud. A few minutes later, the gecko emerges from behind my shoes, still a bit shocked and sore, moving a bit slower now, but still with that determined look, and continues its pursuit. Ah, go go geckos! Help me rid our country and home of the evil invading mosquitoes and live happily ever after (although you will have to find a new favorite delicacy to eat).
Did you know I have been in Rwanda for 22 months? I only have five months left of service, which seems like a flash in light of all that has passed. The countdown has started. It is the last stretch and home seems so close I can almost reach out and touch it. Like I said, projects are starting to finish up and I spend more time asking myself, “What now?” My feelings about Rwanda are complicated, multilayered, knotted together. It’s going to take some sorting, reflection, distance, to figure out exactly how I feel about this place beyond what a surreal experience it has been. It seems like only yesterday I was boarding the plane to African, destination mostly unknown. How much I have discovered, how much my perceptions have changed, how much I will be returning to a destination, again, mostly unknown.