Just Messing With the Man

IMG_6071I fear I may just have screwed up the first ever Rwandan Census. The very kind old gentlemen from the Ministry of Carefully Counting People who came knocking on our door this morning has been checking off little boxes with his No. 2 pencil while trying his hardest to translate the Kinyarwanda questions into French for me. I, in turn, have tried my hardest to answer him as best I can in my own pathetically rusty French.

We’ve been at this for a while, but we’re not making a whole lot of headway — when the languages aren’t getting in the way, it’s cultural differences. We got the names and birthdays down, but his eyes grew wide when his math told him (he even double-checked with the calculator on his phone) that my wife really is older than me. Apparently that’s just not done in Rwanda.

I de-hyphenated the kids to keep things simple, and we have managed to get some of the basic family bits out of they way. “Yes,” I confirmed, she is my only wife — not sure if the question hinted at polygamy, or was an attempt to ascertain if I’d been married before. Oddly, he didn’t ask if I was her only husband.

We spend some time trying to figure out what health insurance we have. Rwanda is — rightly — very proud of its comprehensive national health care system, Mutuelle de Santé, which provides over 90 percent of the population with basic health care for the equivalent of two bucks a year. As spoiled rotten expats, we have private insurance, and after a round of charades he finds the right box to tick off on the form to indicate as much.

“To which church do I belong?” I decide against attempting an explanation of Pastafarianism in bad French, but even getting across the supposedly much simpler concept of “none” takes some effort. Rwanda is a deeply religious society; up until the genocide, the Catholic church owned pretty much every soul in town, but after screwing up royally and aligning itself (unrepentantly) a tad too strongly with the bad guys in ’94, it has lost significant ground to the Pentecostals and other evangelical flavors of the cult of Christ. I suspect Mr. Census is a good, pious Christian, but he’s also professional enough not to raise an eyebrow when he finally realizes that he needs to check the box marked “other/none” for yours truly. Once the future abode of my immortal soul has been accounted for statistically, we proceed briskly to the safer topic of employment.

Alas, it becomes impossible for us to agree even to disagree when we get to the kids and their school. In spite of their recent switch of allegiance to the Commonwealth, Rwanda’s public schools still follow a mutant variation on the retarded and archaic French system, where grades are counted backwards and your life as a student is broken into lots of confusing chunks where the counting starts over. Or, as Wikipedia so eloquently puts it: “In contrast to the practice in most other education systems, the various school years in France are numbered on a decreasing scale. Thus, pupils begin their secondary education in the sixième (6th class), and transfer to a lycée in the seconde (2nd class), while the final year is the terminale.” Yeah, that makes perfect sense, France — there’s a reason nobody takes you seriously any more.

So, I can’t simply tell him that Lucas is going into 8th grade and Lea into 6th. Those grades don’t exist on his form. I try drawing him a timeline, and we agree that they both started in what he calls “maternelle“, which I believe is French for pre-kindergarten (which of course is German for… yeah, Scumbag English, who don’t you have your own word for that first year?). But then it gets confusing when we reach the first fork on the form and start squabbling over premiere and secondaire. How old are you when you start secondary school around here? So… are our guys in their last years of primary school or their first years of secondary school? Is that last year the one marked “1” on his form, or is it the one marked “5”? In the end, I’m pretty sure Lucas ended up as a PhD student, while Lea was put back in nursery school. C’est la vie.

Mr. Numbers is warming up to me now, and we’re slowly agreeing to make the best of the situation. He’s still enough of a professional to insist on getting real answers to real questions, though, and we spend quite a bit of time working out if Lisa really works for the Rwandan government in her role as a doctor at the teaching hospital in Kigali. Maybe it’s the fact that we also just agreed that none of us speak Kinyarwanda (and checked boxes accordingly) that confuses him there. I insist that, no, she really does work for the Ministry of Health, and at long last that’s the box that gets checked off.

Yada yada yada… nobody has died in this house recently (as far as I know), yes, I’m the father of both kids (as far as I know), yes, we have running water and electricity (I’d love to explain to him that the background noise he’s hearing is the toilet on the ground floor that has been running pretty much non-stop since the day we moved in in spite of the expensive efforts of several hilariously incompetent plumbers, and that perhaps he should have a box to indicate that the plumbing in our house is, in fact, shot to hell — but in the end I decide against it and just nod).

For the first time, my new buddy breaks into a bit of a smile as he turns the page and declares, “Vous n’avez pas des vaches, c’est vrais?” Ah, he’s finally figured us out and we’re heading down the home stretch here. No, we do not have any cows. Or goats. Or sheep. That’s all duly noted down, along with the salient fact that we have no radio, no TV, a fridge, one bicycle, one car, four computers and that we access the internet via our cell phones.

On that final note, he carefully puts his reading glasses back in their little case, stacks our completed census form along with the rest of his growing pile, and thanks me profusely for my trouble. We share a laugh at our linguistic ineptitudes, and I almost want to apologize for living in his country while barely speaking a word of Kinyarwanda.

We spent a good hour going over our household of four. Now, granted, we were not your typical Rwandan family, and charades take a bit longer to complete — but the average Rwandan household consists of something like 10 people, and a full page is required for each person in the household. So, at this rate, it would surely take Rwanda (population approximately 10 million) eleventyfour years to complete the census. Between returning refugees and a fertility rate that’s among the highest in Africa, Rwanda is growing in leaps and bounds, and the society is changing rapidly as the economy grows. They need the census data to plan and strategize for the years ahead; I wish them luck, and hope they manage to pull off the census in spite of weird outliers like the Blackmore/Adams household in Kinyinya throwing off their numbers.