In the course of the six weeks or so since we returned from Rwanda, I’ve tried time and again to honestly answer the question asked by everybody: “so, how was it?” (Actually, mostly I’ve dealt with kitty litter, homework delinquencies, chauffeuring, and getting life back on track, but with enough coffee around, I’ve tried to reach some kind of conclusion.)
Let me be very clear: this is, of course, my opinion, my slightly snarky take on things. This is not to be construed as representing the views of Dartmouth, my wife, the HRH Program staff, or anybody else. This is not the gospel truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Much of it is conjecture, subjective, and probably wrong. But this is my theory (which is mine), take it for what it’s worth, YMMV.
Things I’ll Sort of Miss About Rwanda
- The ridiculously comfy climate. At almost 5000 feet, Kigali rarely gets really hot, and it almost always features decent breezes. And then there’s the added bonus of sudden, biblical downpours in the rainy season that can be a pain to deal with, but are awe-inspiring to watch in action. The weirdly compelling Groundhog-day feel to living on the equator, where every day starts at 6AM sharp, and ends at 6PM. sharp. Predictable, plannable-around-able. Consistent.
- The absolutely gorgeous views across valleys and mountains, particularly in the morning and evenings when the sun would work its magic.
- Mountain biking with the wonderful, crazy Dutch Priest and his posse on Saturday mornings, on some of the most breathtakingly beautiful trails in the world. Great company, great rides, great memories.
- Veggie samosas from Sharma’s: cheap, fresh, tasty. Deep-fried, of course, and lethal — but did I mention tasty?
- The friendly guys behind the counter at Sharma’s, always working their ecclectic mix of hindi, swahili, kinyarwanda, and english to sell whatever they could to whoever wanted to buy. They never did manage to get me my poppy seeds, though…
- Noshing on grotesquely extravagant Dutch treats while watching Lea ride on top of Mt. Kigali with a spectacular view in the background.
- Dealing with Bob, our efficient, always smiling and unfappable wonder-mechanic — and not feeling the least bit ripped off, even when handing him rather large sums of money time and time again.
- The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you find that you haven’t been ripped off for a change (see Bob, above). And deliberately lowering the bar so far that finding your favorite brand of crackers 20 cents cheaper than normal gives you a bit of a head rush.
- Listening to streaming radio from the Upper Valley (The Point FM!) over a hot cup of coffee in the morning while fantasizing about being back home.
- The incredible birds: eagles, hawks, egrets, bald-winged spotted whatnots — that hover everywhere, even in the middle of the city.
- Freshly picked baby bananas and pineapples for breakfast. Avocadoes the size of soccer balls growing in our back yard, tastier than anything shipped thousands of miles from Mexico to New England could ever hope to be.
- Making new friends for life — as shoulders to cry on, partners-in-crime to indulge in snarky commiserating, loyal helpers and back-coverers, and all-round pillars of strength and little points of light.
- Five bars, baby, five bars! Always solid cell phone coverage, indoors and out, in the city, in the countryside, on the hills, in the valleys. Dear AT&T: if Rwanda can do it, so can you. I even grew to appreciate the convenience of texting (I know, I’m either old or closet Amish if I’m only getting around to seeing the value of texting now… so, sue me).
Things I Most Assuredly Will Not Miss About Rwanda
- The insanely incompetent drivers and the massive traffic mess they’re slowly but surely creating and which is apparently seen as a positive sign of “civilization” by the delusional powers-that-be.
- The idiotic bureaucracy that passes for “order” here. Their obsessive-compulsive fetish with forms and formalities, with etiquette and procedure. To hell with results, let’s make sure we do this the most cumbersome way possible. And, yes, the mantra “African solutions to African Problems” is largely a cop-out when the going gets tough and real problems turn out to require unpleasant, demanding changes in culture and attitude.
- The perpetual hunt for decent prices and decent quality and the constant trade-off between the two. No, no I don’t think a pre-broken made-in-China plastic bowl should cost eight dollars. And 12 bucks for a small bag of cashews is insane – they grow in Mozambique, just down the road, fer cryin’ out loud – when I can get five times that amount for my money in the States. Decent coffee is five bucks a pound?!? I know it’s your big export crop and all that, but c’mon, you can’t charge Whole Foods Market prices in-country.
- The staring. Really? A white guy… in Kigali. You’ve never seen that before? Even though you saw me yesterday, and I looked just the same, and even though the pudgy, pale missionary from Our Lady of the Perpetual Con Job Church in Slowpoke, Iowa preaches every Sunday, just across the road from you? Get over it, already.
- The crowds. There are just entirely too many people in Rwanda. Not just in the city, but everywhere: on the hillsides, on the roads, in the fields, at the markets, in the tiny two-bit villages… Not only is it overwhelming, it will likely be their downfall as they all grow to want more space and require more resources. Kids are awfully cute, and I know you may feel like you’ve got some catching up to do after the genocide decimated the country — but five, six, eight, ten little ones per couple? Really, now…
- The dirt, the dust, the profoundly crappy roads – even in the middle of Kigali. Yes, the Chinese are busy paving the hell out of it all, but there’s still an awfully long way to go.
- The guards that don’t guard, the cops that don’t police, the “excellence” that doesn’t excel.
- The delusional self-deceit that passes for national pride, the incompetence that passes for sophistication, and the crap that passes for quality.
- The depressing realization that you’re being ripped off and taken for a ride most of the time (“special price for you” — aka twice as much as it’s worth; third rate service, just because “you’re not one of us.”)
- Perpetually holding my breath in the hope that my car will hold it together another day without falling apart. Perpetually holding my breath in the hope that I’ll hold it together even when my car surprises nobody at all by falling apart yet again.
- The predictable mantra of “good-y morning… give-a me money!” — a one-two punch to the soul deftly delivered from smiling kids and old grandmothers alike.
- Constantly having to bleach your veggies, filter your water, and think twice about everything you eat.
- The chronic lack of initiative and personal responsibility displayed by pretty much everybody.
- The language barrier. Sure, I could have gotten my act together and tried to learn more Kinyarwanda, but Christ-on-a-hillclimb that’s a tough language to learn. And without it, you’re lost.
- Having to spend my days behind a huge locked and “guarded” gate, even though this is supposedly the safest city in Africa. Maybe it’s not.
- The lack of seasons. Yes, comfy climate every day from 6AM to 6PM is nice, but after a while it gets weird when there’s no fall, no spring, no winter, no change. And, no, rainy season doesn’t count.
More to come as I purge and ponder.