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Friday, October 29, 2010

An atypical day in the life

I had to see the doctor Thursday in Kigali, so I left Kinihira Wednesday morning to run some errands in Gisenyi in preparation for moving next week. I traveled to Gisenyi in 2 overcrowded taxi-vans (matatus), which was relatively comfortable compared to the alternative: the puke-green bus of death.

In amongst arranging to buy some furniture I’d been eying for a while (a cushioned chair and a few coffee tables, one of which will be a book shelf on the cheap), I visited the post office. I got my parents’ Halloween package, as anticipated, but there was no sign of my absentee ballot - way to go MA! However, there were about 14 newly delivered mailbags, so I asked if I could wait and see if there was anything more for me.

Although they weren’t doing anything else, it took the post office employees 30 minutes to get around to opening the mailbags. I occupied with fresh copies of the New Yorker, courtesy of my grandparents, then turned to watch as they dumped the bags unceremoniously onto the floor with painstaking slowness. The bags themselves were quite interesting: they originally came from France, with a few from Great Britain and the US, but seem to have been appropriated by the Rwandan Posita. There was still no sign of the absentee ballot, but my parents’ Thanksgiving package had made it to Rwanda in about 16 days - a record! The post office workers kindly offered me a French mailbag so that I could carry both packages home, and allowed me to trade it for an American one (which has a neat little Velcro closure at the top). After a 30 minute climb uphill I made it home with the USPS sack of packages slung Santa Claus like over my shoulder just as it started to rain. Phew!

At dusk I went and picked up the remainder of my furniture and as I was going to buy cushions in the market had to fend off a teenaged ass-grabber with a slap. But the excitement was only just beginning.

That evening I went to my old boss’s new mansion for dinner. Much to my surprise I found a new used car in the driveway! Papa Rene, as he is called, is a proud member of Rwanda’s NGO-funded upper-middle class. Although I was 45 minutes late, I still waited over 20 minutes for he and his wife to come home from work, which I occupied with phone calls to friends, wowing the housegirls with my rapid English, and by playing with the cutest 3-year-old on earth, Glory. When Papa Rene arrived he informed me that before dinner they’d be visiting his family in Brasserie (where the brewery is, 6km away) and said “I think we can move together,” indicating that I was to join them in the car.

Much to my surprise his wife (who is about 26 and the mother of 3, the oldest of whom is 8) got into the drivers’ seat. “Does Mama Rene know how to drive?” I asked. “She knows buhoro buhoro,” said my boss. If you don’t recall, buhoro buhoro means slowly by slowly and is the phrase I use to describe my Kinyarwanda abilities. Did I mention it was dark out? Needless to say I found the only working seatbelt in the backseat, buckeled up, and made the 3-year-old who preferred to tumble all over the backseat sit on my lap where I could keep a firm grip on her.

The car stalled 5 times as she backed it out of the gold-painted gate and up the steep street, and another time as she attempted to pull into traffic. With Papa Rene calmly coaching his wife in Kinyarwanda, we made it out of Gisenyi town and turned up the hilly and curvey road to Brasserie. For the next 6km I texted goodbyes to a few friends as Mama Rene slowly wound her way to our final destination, the outer tires running off the road only a few times and the breaks being slammed once as she got scared by oncoming headlights, though they were safely on the opposite side of the road.

We finally arrived at the family’s house and I unclenched my fingers and texted news of my ongoing existence to a friend. At the family’s house, I introduced myself, showing off my Kinyarwanda, and then accepted a Fanta and mostly tuned out the conversation in favor of children-watching. Papa Rene’s 3-year-old was playing with her cousin, an 18-month old, precariously feeding him orange Fanta straight from the bottle as mothers sometimes do to their young children. Note that mothers usually have a lot more arm strength and coordination and do not attempt this act over their shoulders. Miraculously she didn’t’ spill any before her mother stepped in with a plastic mug. The 18-month-old was playing with a plastic toy truck, which was marked UN in large letters, I kid you not.

After the Fantas were empty and family business was concluded and a bag of eggs was given to my boss’s family (they gave it to the tired 3-year-old to carry, and I carried her) we returned to the car. I was dismayed but not surprised to see the tired and slightly frustrated Mama Rene slip back into the driver’s seat for the trip back to Gisenyi.

When we’d safely made it back inside their gate and Mama Rene had almost but not quite hit the side of the house as she brought the car to a stop, Papa Rene turned around and said “You see, Agatesi, she knows!” “Yes, she knows!” I agreed. 8 months in Rwanda have at least taught me to lie as well as Rwandans.

Dinner was delicious and thankfully it was my boss who drove me home, otherwise it might have ended up all over the new-used backseat of the car.

As a postscript, today I found my ballot in the Peace Corps office in Kigali, shipped by UPS express. The address was my Gisenyi PO and didn’t mention that I’m a PCV so I have no idea how it found its way to the PC office, but I guess MA is no longer as delinquent as I thought. I’d already voted by email, though.

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