Monday, December 6, 2010

Meet the people in my village!

Bwiza and my adopted family
On my first day in the village, I was led down the hill and among the houses by an ever-increasing gang of children. I was completely disoriented by the time Bwiza invited me into her house “to give a sweet potato” (which she was cooking) and a glass of milk. Bwiza is my age (23), unmarried, and has an adorable 5 year old son. Her family, like so many in the village, came here after years in the Congo. Bwiza finished secondary school in Goma and speaks little English: we mostly communicate in French and Kinyarwanda. She is the second oldest and only girl of 8 kids (ranging from 25 and studying medicine in Goma to 8, just a few years older than his nephew). The family is very intelligent and hard-working. The 22 and 12 year old brothers in particular speak impressive English and are very studious. Bwiza is my village best friend - I’ve enjoyed showing her pictures of friends and family and narrating for her the North American seasons on a virtual tour of Boston via my calendar. We trade food, gossip, stories, comparisons of life in America and here, and English/Kinyarwanda lessons.

Philip, the primary school headmaster
Philip is Bwiza & co.’s uncle. He is the headmaster of the primary school (660 students and expanding to cover the first 3 years of secondary with 60 more students expected). We primarily converse in French. He’s been incredibly welcoming, and helped facilitate my English class, grantwriting, and other projects.

Kayihura is the chief of the umudugudu (village). When I first met him he called me “umukobwa wanjye.” He’s always happy to greet me and we’ve been collaborating on the needs assessment, water project, etc.

Robert is Rebecca’s houseboy/cook/fixer/extraordinaire. He’s been so helpful for me, showing me to the market town 50 minutes away, helping me find eggs and plant flowers and fruit in my garden, and generally just being good company.. One of the smartest Rwandans I’ve met, at 24 he still has 2 years left of secondary school (he’s saved his money and will return to school this January). Robert’s English is excellent and he loves learning slang and expressions, leading to many a discussion about gold digging, keeping up with the Joneses, odd ducks, etc etc.

Mama Benjamin
Mama Benjamin (of the toothbrushing lesson LINK) has a shop is across the street from my office and house. Every time I visit, she gives me a Fanta (I take citron) and refuses to let me pay. The room where she receives guests and customers is decorated with various Catholic images with origami-style frames made from Primus beer labels. (Fitting for a Catholic, yes?)

Mama Shakuru
Mama Shakuru lives behind the office and my house. She can often be found in her kitchen, where she’ll offer me a sweet potato or cup of ikivuguto (Rwandan yogurt). Her family owns a cow and if I ask a day in advance I can usually get a good deal on a liter of fresh milk - 100rwf ($.15 - it’s 200rwf in shops here and 400rwf in Gisenyi). Sometimes I literally stand there with my empty bottle watching Shakuru, 16, milk the cow. I take the milk home, strain the stray hairs out, and boil it. Once in a while they won’t sell me milk - “we need it for Muhirwa (moo-hee-rgwa),” she’ll say, nodding to her affable 3 year old son, belly swollen with worms. How can I take milk from him? A few weeks ago I used some of their milk to make carrot cake pancakes, so I made 6 small ones for every member of their family (I made 7, actually - Robert raved about his). When I brought them over and said they were like amandazi (donuts) but with milk and carrots, 5-year-old Luisa and 7-year-old Samuel went nuts with excitement. Their mother ordered them to wash their hands and all 3 young kids took a pancake. Samuel’s was gone in 2 bites; Luisa made hers last a few seconds longer. Muhirwa took a few nibbles, and his mother asked for a bite. She liked it, but he didn’t - “he doesn’t like sweet things,” she explained, “not even sweet little bananas.” Luisa and Samuel nearly knocked each other over fighting over Muhirwa’s leftovers; apparently they like sweet things.

My English Class
Since mid-November I’ve been teaching a twice-weekly English class to secondary school students, who are on vacation. My class has dwindled from 20 to 5-10 regulars who often show up 10-15 minutes late, but I try not to take too much offense. Some of the kids are top students, others I’m told are cow herders who aren’t currently attending school. Nearly all are boys; I’ve struggled to get girls to show up with little success. We do fun (I hope) activities - fill in the blank, vocab and interpretation of hip hop songs; the human knot to practice directions, listening to American radio stories, debates, etc, working in lessons in life skills and setting goals. I’ve told Robert, who’s a regular, that the class is sometimes like “pulling teeth” - the education culture here is that of rote memorization and little participation. Getting students to interpret song meanings, compare Rwanda to the America of an NPR story, or guess at a new vocabulary word from context can be a painfully slow process.

The market ladies
Each afternoon, just before 4, women start laying out old plastic sacks on the road with piles of cassava, or buckets heaped with sweet potatoes, or bags of irish potatoes. If I’m lucky someone will have avocado, corn, cabbage or soy flour; on 2 occasions I’ve seen miniature mangoes and onions and once each bananas, urusenda hot peppers, and tomatoes. (Pineapples can sometimes be bought from a passing trader.) It’s the only market within nearly an hour’s walk, and as such, many women shop at the market on a daily basis. Various village women sell their surplus starchy roots. I check it out most days because you never know what you might find. Mostly I just find calls of “Agatesi (that’s me), buy potatoes,” “Agatesi, soya,” “Agatesi, come look at the avocado.” The first time I saw mangoes I was with Bwiza, on my way to visit her house. I bought us 10 for 100rwf ($.15) and we sat at her house, peeling fruits the size of a child’s fist and getting their hairs stuck in our teeth as she showed me pictures of her in school, her son’s father, and her “sweetie.”


  1. For those of us who do not speak Kinyarwanda, please translate “umukobwa wanjye.”

  2. I predict that Billie's favorite Rwandan food will be Amandazi!

  3. They aren't actually sweet. They're pretty heavy, greasy and blah. Maybe it will be.


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