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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dirty grass

I felt like I was going insane yesterday. I was being told, by multiple colleagues and neighbors, that something totally normal and logical was completely unacceptable, nay, dirty.

I should have maybe seen it coming - but how could I have expected something so asinine? In retrospect, they were all trying to tell me that I was doing something wrong: my landlady when she barged in and weeded my yard and the 4-foot high hillsides to the south of my house, causing miniature mudslides and concerns about erosion, Robert when he found a boy to weed my yard although I’d told him I was waiting until closer to when my family would arrive, another woman who’d discussed working in my yard coming to pull the grass and weeds off my path without my permission, leaving me slipping, sliding and splattered in mud every time I went to the bathroom, and a few comments here and there about my grass.

That’s right: the root of my temporary madness was grass. Or rather, the root of my temporary madness was that multiple people were telling me, with the utmost conviction, something that was totally false in my worldview: my grass was unhygienic.

Apparently, what was growing in my yard was “unhygienic grass.” When my counterpart finally broached the subject directly with me, I asked about the grass over there up the hill, and he said it was “good grass.” What about the grass by the road? It didn’t matter, because I am in the village to teach about (among other things) good hygiene, and how could I tell people to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and boil their drinking water if I had unhygienic grass in my yard?

(From my perspective, of course, how were people who don’t use soap to tell me my grass was dirty? The “good” grass at my office was more neat and manicured than my grass, but really? Good grass and bad grass? Dirty grass and clean grass?

I take a lot of care with my community reputation: I want to be viewed, in the Rwandan parlance, as a “serious” person. I’m careful to respect Rwandan cultural mores, not to drink in the village, usually to dress in skirts or wrap a sheet of igitenge fabric around my waist when I leave my yard. I regularly sweep my house and dress in clean clothes. So being told that I was unclean, unhygienic, especially by people who don’t boil their drinking water or wash their hands with soap, was a pretty big affront.

Eventually, after angrily shoving some cuttings from a flowery bush into my naked and eroding hillside, I came around and accepted what I’d been told. Just as I think it’s crazy for people who don’t wash their hands with soap to tell me I’m unclean for having grass in my yard, I am losing credibility with them when I try to teach about proper handwashing because they believe my yard is unclean. So I’ve accepted the irrational, counterfactual cultural belief and submitted to it: negotiating “good grass” to be planted in the front yard, planting “good” grass on the paths and stairs, and hiring the rogue path-weeding lady to turn most of the rest of the yard into hills for planting (it’s been a long time coming).

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