The Beautiful Hills of Kigali
“Don’t panic. The office vouched for this guy and Mary said she talked to him and he was close. He’ll show up. You’ll get to the office just fine,” said the rational voice in my head as I watched Mary, the family friend I’m staying with this week, drive off to her job at 8:30AM on Monday. “But I’m locked out of the house! I don’t have a phone or a phone number to call the office, I don’t speak the language, and I don’t know where I’m going. Plus, the guy from the office said not to wait for the driver past 8:40 and it’s almost that time!” said the panicked voice belonging to the girl who had been in Rwanda less than 24 hours. “You really don’t have any choice but to wait and see what happens. You know timeliness has a different meaning here. And everyone said the city was very safe, so you’ll be fine waiting outside the gate,” the rational voice responded. “Settle in and do some people watching. You're here to enjoy the journey, remember?”
There wasn’t really any other option, so that’s what I did. Gisozi, the part of town I’m staying in doesn’t have many foreigners and those that do live there rarely spend much time in the neighborhood outside of their gated and walled homes, so I definitely attracted a few stares as I stood waiting on the sidewalk. The school children walking by were my favorites – many of them would try out a shy “Good morning” and break into huge grins when I responded. Rwanda just switched its education system to emphasize English rather than French in October 2008, which I think may be part of why young kids in particular are excited to try out their English. The minutes ticked by, a few motor cycle taxis, or motos, and minibuses stopped to ask if I needed a ride, and soon it was 9:00. “Ok,” I thought, “You have to do something now. Either take a moto down to the international bus station the office is near, or see if you can borrow someone’s phone to call Mary, since you have her number.” Luckily, as I was debating which option was less nerve racking, a battered maroon sedan pulled up and the driver beckoned at me. Reasoning that there couldn’t be that many other drivers in the area looking for an American standing outside a gate, I walked over and he handed me his cellphone. To my relief, Mary’s voice came out of the speaker. I got in, glad to find that while the open door light seemed to be permanently on, the seat belt worked just fine, and we headed down the hill to the office.
To get there, we walked back down the steps and across the parking lot, then up a rocky dirt road. An old man guarding the gate said something to both of us before unlocking the gate and Francine taught me my first Kinyarwandan word, mwaramutse, which means good morning. Greetings are very important here – before anything can happen, you say hello or good morning to everyone in the room, often shaking hands as a way to accompany the greeting. Handshakes here are quite gentle, more a clasping of hands than the firm grip and up-and-down pump so admired in the US. I’ve had to work hard not to be overly aggressive with the “good” handshake I’ve worked to develop in my career and business school, and I’m sure I’ll have to re-learn that one at the end of the summer to avoid the dreaded “limp fish” when I return to the States. We continued up the hill, passing a few goats and an avocado tree, while I reflected on the fact that I was very glad I hadn’t worn my suede heels that morning but had instead opted for the much more durable patent leather flats – the heels will probably spend the entire summer in my suitcase. The workshop area is bright and open, with space to repair lights and POWERCycles that get broken, a desk for the accountant, and a storeroom for inventory. It’s quiet and breezy, but since there’s no internet access, I can only work from there occasionally.
I spent the rest of the day getting settled in, doing a bit of work on projects I’d started when I was working from the States, and getting to know the people in the office. Everyone is very nice – they helped me get a Rwandan SIM card for my phone, figure out why the internet wasn’t working, and add more money to the account to buy a data plan. By US standards, data is quite cheap: you can either buy unlimited weekly data for RWF4,000 (about $5.75), or get 5GB of data to use within 90 days for RWF15,000 (about $21.50). I opted for the weekly unlimited to get a sense of how much I’ll be using my phone – wifi is not at all common here, so pretty much all of my internet usage outside of the office will be through my phone. I did spend most of the day feeling like an adult trapped in a child’s body – I knew what I wanted to do, but couldn’t really communicate it to anyone and needed other people to tell me what to do, show me where to get lunch, how much to pay, etc. While the field staff are always willing to help me out, they’re not always so good at teaching me how to do or say things so I can eventually do them on my own, so that’s been a bit of a challenge.
Before I left, I talked to several people who had worked with Rwandans before and almost universally they told me that it was very important to build a personal relationship with your colleagues in order to develop trust and make them feel comfortable disagreeing with you. I spent a good part of the day talking with the local staff and it was amazing to see how they lit up as soon as I started talking about my family or showing them pictures on my phone. They began to open up to me about their lives as well, and I heard all about their wives, children, girlfriend problems, and more. I also had my first reminder that as an American, I am expected to be an authority on everything in the US: I got peppered with questions about gun control, the death penalty, economic opportunity, and the cost of living, which I tried to answer as best I could. I’ll definitely need to be keeping up on current events in the US while I’m here!
I’ve settled into a routine pretty quickly here: mornings are spent in the shop, listening to the rapid fire Kinyarwandan conversations among the staff, the whirring of the POWERCycle, and the honking and bustle of the busy street outside. I brought my own computer and I’ve carved out a bit of space on the desk, though I still feel like I’m always in the way. This week, I ate lunch at a few of the different restaurants in the building around the office – they’re good, but don’t offer much variety. Rwandan food is tasty, but very heavy on the starches – you typically get a plate of rice, fries, green bananas, pasta, etc. and then a separate serving of meat, beans, or on rare occasion, vegetables. I’m hoping to start bringing my own lunch one I move into a permanent spot, but that’s not really part of the culture here, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping they’ll be willing to indulge me. In the afternoons, I’ll typically move up to the workshop to escape the worst of the heat and spend some time summarizing what I’ve learned that day or reading through resources I found and downloaded in the morning. Everyone leaves at just about 5:30 on the dot.