Saw my reflection in a mirror today for the first time since I can remember. Although I packed many things I thought I might need, and most of which are probably going to come in handy at one time or another, I did not pack a mirror. Mirrors are highly overrated, I think. I didn’t even realize I hadn’t seen myself until a couple of weeks had passed and I happened to notice that I could see my reflection in the glass on the bookcase in my office. At the time, I was surprised to see the same old face that I remember. I think I was surprised to see that I look the same as I remembered because I am so used to being stared at wherever I go that I have an heightened awareness of myself as oddity, as opposed to the complacency that I enjoy when I look similar to the people around me. This has become even more apparent when I am in my new home in a retirement community in Florida where, not only are most members white (not unlike Vermont in this respect), but everyone is as old, or older than I am. By contrast, I am a strange beast here, and rarely does a minute pass when I am out of the house that I am not reminded this by someone whom I pass on the road. Here, people stare openly at me. It is not uncommon for children or teenagers to actually call attention to my presence by shouting out umuzungu (white foreigner). Sometimes they laugh and chat among themselves, beg me for money, or start following me, either to stare or to beg. It is actually tiring to leave the house because of all attention but, if I am honest with myself, I really can’t blame them – in this sea of dark skin, I really do look pretty weird.
I believe that I look especially odd when I am on my bicycle riding to work. What is interesting to me is that the stares rarely appear friendly, but if I greet the person staring at me in my best Kinyarwanda, their faces light up and they respond immediately. Suddenly, what was incomprehensible or strange becomes something recognizable. Given the number of people I pass each time I go out, it means that I have to greet a lot of people so my greetings have gotten quite good, unlike the rest of my Kinyarwanda which remains abysmally minimal. I am hoping that, eventually, people will get used to seeing me and perhaps I won’t have to make so much effort to “normalize” myself all the time for the starers.
Today, I am at a hotel in Huye, a town more than twice the size of Ruhango, about an hour and half away by bus, south. I was invited to have dinner with the family of one of the administrators at the College in Ruhango and since it is a bit closer than Kigali, the capital city, I was curious as to whether I could come this direction to find things that I can’t find in Ruhango, like a clean butchery. Also, there is a branch of the bank where Peace Corps is depositing our living allowance and, since we haven’t seen hide nor hair of our ATM cards or check books yet, it was an excuse to come pick up some cash. I chose to stay in the only hotel with a swimming pool, and it is a lovely pool, appears to be fresh water without any chlorine although it must have something in it. Anyway, upon arrival, hot and sweaty from having climbed up the hill from the bus station, I was delighted to dive into its fresh cool waters. The bus station has apparently been moved since the maps that showed the location of the hotel online were done so, instead of being around the corner from the hotel, it was on the opposite side of town!!
Compared to the other two markets I have been to, Kimironko in Kigali and the Ruhango market, the Huye market here is to-die-for fabulous. Not too big, but not too small, everything is beautiful, well-arranged, there is more variety than in my town and it made me laugh to see eggs everywhere! I still can’t figure out why I can’t find eggs easily in Ruhango. I don’t know that I’ll travel an hour and a half to buy eggs, since I now have a neighbor at home who can get them for me, but I will come to shop at the market and, yes, buy meat at the butchery.
Perhaps more interesting than the difference in market appearance, is the fact that people are not all staring at me, and I only heard one person mumble umuzungu when I passed him. Apparently, in the “big” city, abazungu (plural of umuzungu) are as unfamiliar, athough I only saw a few during my two days in Huye. Still….. I did manage to attract the attention of one youth who followed me some distance to my hotel despite my efforts to “shoo” him away. He didn’t even give up when the guard at the hotel came to escort me to reception. He hung around outside for awhile; finally, he left.
I really enjoyed being able to walk around the market and just look, particularly since it was such a feast for the eyes. Here, people don’t chase after me to try to get me to buy something, as they do in Kimironko market in Kigali, and people weren’t staring at me constantly, as they do in my home town. They more-or-less left me along unless I initiated an interaction. It was more relaxing than my other market experience here and I realized how much energy it takes to always be “on guard” from what Peace Corps calls “unwanted attention”. Peace Corps gave us an entire page of expressions to use under these circumstances, but I have resisted learning them.. I mean, yes, in some circumstances, like with the young men hanging around, it is rude, even by Rwandan standards. But most of the time the attention is simply unabashed curiousity and I am pretty strange…. . Walking back to my hotel from the market, I had a laugh at myself when I saw another white person approaching me and the first thing that came to mind was umuzungu!
I confess, even as I enjoyed the freedom of not being stared at by everyone who sees me, and was overcome with envy at the market, I realize that I would probably not want to live in a town this large. I’ll come to visit, to get the things I can’t get at home, but then I will return home. I think I have a chance to make more of a difference in Ruhango, most of the people whom I have met here in Huye speak better English than the residents of Ruhango. Of course, there probably would not be the same problem finding me housing here as there has been in Ruhango.
Of course, personally, the high point of my visit was that I finally got to hear the Muslim call to prayer that rings out from the Muslim mosques in towns that have mosques five times a day. It is a beautiful sound, and one to which I had grown accustomed when I lived in Mombasa and was hoping to hear again when I returned. But alas, the call to prayer in Ruhango is at a mosque far enough away from where I live that I cannot hear it. So, today, when the early morning call woke me in my hotel room in Huye, I smiled and let myself sink into the sheer pleasure of hearing the call even as it lulled me back to sleep. For the first time since my arrival, I felt like I was home.
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