For a moment, I forgot where I was. Perhaps I was lulled into complacency by the German Butchery I had frequented in Kigali, where eggs were sold in little plastic cartons, just like those at home, although only six to a set instead of twelve, and meat and poultry wer laid out in sterile silver trays in various cuts that I recognized. Perhaps I was still suffering from jet lag. Whatever it was, I wasn’t thinking. So it was with a hopeful spirit to find a good source of animal protein in this town that I set out on this sunny morning.
I headed to the market where, much to my surprise the sides of the street surrounding the market were populated by dozens of (mostly) women sitting next to a wild array of vegetables and fruit, tiny green eggplants, tiny orange peppers that looked like wrinkled sweet peppers but which, as I was to discover later, were fiery hot, green beans, carrots, onions. It was Friday — market day! This was the day when people from the villages surrounding the town all came to town to sell their produce. I had forgotten.
According to the tourist guide for Rwanda that I purchased before leaving, the market is one of Ruhongo’s claims to fame, being one of the largest markets in the country. It used to be held outside and, of course, the many vendors lining the street around the market still sell their wares outside once all the space in the market itself, a large tin roofed building high on the hill above the valley where my house is located, has filled. After buying vegetables outside, I entered the building, still on my mission to find animal protein: meat, chicken, eggs, milk.
But I found nothing as I wandered about. Finally, I began asking and one kind elderly woman, dressed in a beautiful golden Rwandan-style dress, with her head draped in a red scarf, and walking with a tall walking stick, offered to help me out. I suspected she was Muslim because of her covered head, but I knew that there are not many in Rwanda, which is predominantly Christian, and that they are not always well-received because of their religion, so I did not say anything and turned to follow her obediently but it did not escape me that it was a Muslim woman who had befriended me, after having lived so many years in a Muslim community along the coast of Kenya. I felt comforted by the familiarity of her presence. She dragged me across the market on what was now a mutual quest to find inyama (meat). She spoke only Kinyarwanda, I only French, English, and Swahili. So our conversation was someone limited. I learned that her name was Janet, not a Muslim name at all, so I still couldn’t be sure that my suspicions about her religion were accurate.
Along the sides of the market building, two stories high are individual shops, each having a back wall, and two side walls, but with the front totally open for easy viewing of what what inside. Typically, they sold a category of foodstuff, such as the one housing big bags of grains and flours. I hadn’t really noticed them before but they came into focus as she led me up the stairs and along the balcony that stretched the length of the market building, offering access into the various shops. Finally we arrived at “La Boucherie” (butchery, in French), as was written above the face and I entered and found, behind a glass counter, the butcher himself, wielding a large knife and smiling as he cut what appeared to be the stomach of a cow into large strips. Before him, was an astonishing array of cow anatomy, lying one atop one another, to form an astonishing heap of what I had asked for – inyama (meat). I greeted him, and everyone in the shop in my best Kinyarwanda, which pleased them but they were, of course, bemused by my presence. And why not? I am the only white person I have seen since I arrived, and I suspected that if there were any other in town, they probably did not frequent this particular establishment, at least not with any regularity. I was not sure when I, if ever, would be back.
I recognized nothing in the display before me, and the absence of the sterile trays I had seen in Kigali caused me pause to wonder. Clearly, if I bought anything, I’d have to clean it, but the bigger question was what could I buy? I recognized nothing, so I could not point, and I certainly did not have the language to discuss the bounty that lay before me. And the memory of the brouchette I had had the day before at a local restaurant that I could hardly chew reminded me that perhaps the meat set out before me was as tough as it was lean… I finally turned to Janet, sadly, shook my head and said, hopefully, inkoko? (Chicken?)
We set off again, this time out of the market and down the street away from the market. I remained ever hopeful that I would eventually see something that I recognized. I had forgotten a couple of things, first, where I was, and second, that, in all my past lives in East Africa, I had lived with families, who did all the market shopping and food preparation for me. And so, as we rounded the corner to the place where inkoko would be found, I was astonished to find myself confronted by a wild array of fully feathered, fully intact, and fully alive chickens! There was even a huge proud turkey waiting for, presumably, his demise, and a woman sitting on the ground who reached into her huge box of absolutely darling rabbits and offered me one! It was all I could do not to pick it up and stuff it in my bag and take it home as a pet. What had I expected?? Of course, I would have to buy a live chicken! And kill it myself, and pluck it, although one vendor, seeing my surprise and holding several squirming birds in his hand, motioned that he would kill one and pluck it for me. I was in hysterics at myself, faced with the reality that I was just another umuzungu (foreigner) who had no idea how the rest of the world lived.
I tried to explain that I couldn’t kill any of the animals but, of course, who ever heard of such a thing, not killing a chicken for supper? I didn’t try to tell them that my first instinct was to collect up all the animals and take them home with me so as to save them from ever being eaten at all. I had enough wherewithal in the moment to know that that would be entirely inappropriate, even if anyone could actually understand the suggestion. In a land where people struggle to have enough food on the table, pets are a luxury that one can ill afford. And, in fact, I haven’t see a dog or a cat since my arrival in the country. I realized in that moment that I was going to have to rethink my eating habits for awhile. I thanked everyone profusely, and turned to Janet and said igi (egg)?… One day, when I know more Kinyarwanda, I will go back and explain to them all what happened but, until then, I had to be content to remain one very weird umuzungu. I am consoled by the fact that I am to be here for a year. I will get to know various vendors over time and they will get to know me. And while I am quite sure that I will never kill or pluck my own chicken, I might one day let someone else do it for me….
Janet and I failed to find eggs, as amazing as that sounds and so, disappointed, she said Inshallah, (God-willing, in Arabic) and turned to leave me. I knew in that moment that she was, indeed, Muslim, and I happily responded in kind Inshallah! which cheered her up, I think. I am going to go looking for her in the market the next time I go. I think she and I will become friends, once I have enough language to hold a decent conversation with her. I have since been warmly approached by another Muslim resident, an imam, and now know that, most of the time, I can say Salaam alekum as a greeting to any woman wearing a draped head scarf, or a man wearing a short, rounded skullcap. They are, of course, delighted to be greeted in Arabic. It is, for me, a sign of respect to show that I recognize who they are and can greet them appropriately. They always seem both surprised and pleased.
Eggs proved to be equally elusive and finally, caught in a rainstorm, I ended up explaining my plight to a woman taking shelter in the same shop where I found myself. Just then, a boy came along with a big plastic container of eggs he was selling by the egg, but they were hard-boiled. The woman explained to him my difficulty, that I wanted eggs TO cook, not eggs that were already cooked, and he disappeared into the deluge to retrieve what I needed from wherever his source for eggs was located. He eventually returned, with six eggs delicately wrapped in a little paper bag that had been handmade from what looked like to be the page of a student’s notebook as it was covered with text in Kinyarwanda. I paid a fortune for them, I since learned, having found a more fairly priced source since, but I saved the packaging so that I can eventually to learn to read it. And so, by the end of the day, I trudged home with my little packet of eggs in hand, reflecting on the realization that I, like Dorothy, was really no longer in Kansas and that there was no wizard behind the curtain, only live chickens and rabbits. 🙂