A Matter of Perspective*

They say that “home is where the heart” is and, although I would not say that my heart is quite fully here in Rwanda yet, I did notice last week when I came home from a three-day trip to Kigali, the capital, that I was happy to be “home” when we rounded the corner of the dusty road leading up to my house and pulled up at the bright green corrugated gate that marks its entrance.   I actually have a very nice house, according to many standards:   there are many windows, a big kitchen, electricity and running water, although both go on and off frequently.   It is located close to the market, and the bus station, and a reasonable bike ride from the college where I am working.

On the downside, there is a constant din of music from the market located up on the hill above the house;  from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., the sound of radio echoes through the valley where I live.  Luckily, I no longer really “hear” it, thanks to the mind’s ability to filter out that which it does not like, although the quiet that settles over the area in the evening is a welcome change every evening.     The other problem with the house is its location in terms of my ability to integrate into the community:  there is a school across from it, and no neighbors to speak of on either side.  So no one to hang out with, to talk to in Kinyarwanda, all activities that would allow me to feel that I am part of a community are really not to be found here.

So it was with mixed feelings that I agreed to help my host institution look for a new home for me since they were only able to rent this house until December.  The search has become a journey through shifting priorities as my perspective on what is most important changes with each house that we view.

While there is plenty of housing here in Ruhango, much of it would not meet Peace Corps standards for housing, a somewhat overwhelming lists of requirements which focus more on safety than convenience.  So, for example, running water in the house is not a requirement, while certain types of locks on the door are.   Personally, I would like very much to have running water; I can always buy new locks, or put in extra bolts.

The first house we looked at was not far from my current one, in a nice walled compound, and had been previously occupied by two Norwegian volunteers.  It is bigger than I need, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen and a larger “sitting room”.   Only drawback was that it was very dark; no windows in the bedrooms, and several tinted glass ones in the sitting room. I worried about my allergies without fresh air.   Since it is located in a compound, surrounded by walls and located next to a main house where the landlord lives, not a lot of light comes into the narrow courtyard to then enter through the windows which do exist.   It was also very expensive.

The next house was just down the road from mine, actually two apartments located up a steep incline comprised of deep stairs coming off a dirt slope, accessed only by leaping over the deep dirt trench than runs along in front of the house, as it travels down from my current house to drain somewhere at the bottom of the hill.    Reaching the door empty-handed was not an easy task; I couldn’t imagine how I would make the climb with my bicycle in tow.   No neighbors still, and the ever present din of market music still filled the air.  The apartments themselves were divided into small dark rooms and my host would have had to rent both to ensure safety since there was a door joining the two apartments that would probably not pass muster with Peace Corps in terms of security.  Plus, I don’t know that I would feel particularly safe with someone living just on the other side of a door unless I knew them.  In many ways, I am grateful for the high standards that they set for volunteer housing.   And, even if we were to figure out what to do with the connecting door, and rent one apartment,  we couldn’t guarantee that a new tenant next door would meet the Peace Corps requirement of being my same gender.  And then the coup de grace — no  water in the house.

We almost struck gold with the third house.  It was in a compound, with enough light, with a big living room that I would probably use to make a studio apartment and use the other two rooms for storage.    Bathroom was not as nice as my current one, but certainly adequate.  And the landlord said she would put in a kitchen sink with running water for me.   A family with children live in the compound, and the cry from the mosque calling Muslims in the community to prayer that I had been longing to hear since my arrival echoed across the valley outside the house as we toured the compound.   I felt at home with both the sweet sound of adhan and with my prospective landlord who is, herself, a Muslim.

My years in Mombasa has certainly left me with a sense of comfort around African Muslim women which is not, I am afraid to say, matched when I am with Christian women.  There is an ‘edginess’ to orthodox Christians that I do not feel with Muslims.  It may simply be the fact that the former is much more inclusive than the latter.  Muslims recognize Jesus as a teacher, and some sects even celebrate some of the same people that Christianity reveres.  While Buddhism, Yoga, Hinduism, and Islam embrace a multitude of saviors, teachers, and gods, Christians limit themselves to a very small part of humanity’s spiritual heritage.  Perhaps it is this that I sense when I am with them. I don’t know what it is, but there is a difference for me.

But there was, again, one glitch with this house – it was located quite a distance from where I work, from the market, from the bus depot, although it isn’t far from what I think one might call the business epicenter of town.   Peace Corps has a requirement of distance to travel from work to home not exceeding 45” walking.    If the path from work to home were flat, it wouldn’t be a problem, but this is a land of hills, you can’t get anywhere without having to walk up, or down, steep inclines in many places.   While the trip to work would be, more-or-less downhill, I feared that the trip home in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, would be a challenge.  I was also worried about what I would do if my bicycle failed me.  So, we decided to wait to see other options.

The house we looked at yesterday was extremely depressing.  Located in what looked like a rabbit warren of small apartments inside a compound, we couldn’t even get in the main gate because it was locked and no one answered.  There was trash piled outside the gate where we could not enter.  We walked all the way around the compound to use a back entrance, which was not locked, and this entry landed us at the door to the house, next to another apartment where a woman was screaming in pain because, according to her child, who was watching us with great curiosity, she was ill.  I was hoping that perhaps she was in labor, about to have another child, because, if not, I couldn’t imagine that things were going to end well from what I heard.  On the other hand, there was a custom of weeping and wailing unabashedly when there was a death in the family among the Swahili in Mombasa.   They also put anyone was sick in the middle of the living room, rather than hidden away in a bedroom as was the case when I was a child.

It could  be that people here simply do not repress their feelings when ill, in contrast to the stoicism that one meets in New England, and that was characteristic of  the “silent generation” (1925-45).  Certainly, my mother chose to suffer in silence, even when my father died, and she was born right smack dab in the middle of the silent generation.   Whatever the reality was, the sound of crying and moaning did not contribute in a positive fashion to my impression of the residence.  Furthermore, there was nothing that I could do.  My host and I looked at one another, and then made our way to the door.  It was not my life, nor my place to interfere.   Medical care here is relatively good, and accessible to everyone.  It was up to anyone  in pain to seek the help that is available to them.

Although I do not equate human life with animal life, having to accept that I was not there to change the life of whoever was weeping behind the closed door,  accepting my place in the world and walking away was reminiscent of my realization that I could not save the homeless kittens perched high in the roof of my neighbors house.  Maybe they survived, maybe they did not.  And so it would be for the woman whose pain I could only imagine.  She would seek help, or heal on her own, but hers was a world into which I had no right to enter.  Once again, I had to accept that I am, to some extent, only a passing voyeur in this new world of mine.  I am here to contribute what I can, when I am asked, but I am not here to tell anyone that their lives are not their own.   I am here to witness, but not to intrude.

The house we were viewing was, itself, dark, and tucked away in a corner next to the outer wall.  There was no water in the house, and the bathroom had only a narrow cement channel  going out through a hole in the side wall.  Heaven knows where it went.   I didn’t feel safe there:  Too many locked doors and too many locked gates that went to I-didn’t-know-where.  We could not actually see the entire compound due to the fact that the side apartments were located between an high outer wall and the high wall surrounding the main courtyard whose gates were all, ominously, locked. It was as if the people living outside the wall were but an afterthought.    You could not see over the walls, and daylight was limited to what light came in through narrow passage overhead between the two towering walls.  I had visions of trying to come home and not being able to get in, and feeling suffocated when I had entrance.

Making a home for myself is the first thing I do when I arrive in new place.  It might be a room or, as is was in Mombasa, just a trunk in the corner of the room I shared with my Swahili mother and sister, where I could keep my belongings.   I am usually able to make do with very little.   But now, having seen a couple of houses that I don’t think the even I could come to consider “home”,  my perspective has changed considerably.  Dark & expensive, versus light, reasonably priced but at a distance, are now my two options, I have to decide which is more important to me.  My house-hunting host wants to get the dark expensive house, I think because it is nearer, but I am still not convinced.  It is considerably more expensive, and we would still need to get furniture.   Even though I would not be paying for it, paying a lot of money for something that I am not sure I would really like seemed like a huge waste of money.

The good news is that either choice will locate me inside compounds with Rwandan families.  So, no matter what, I should be feeling more a part of where I am than I feel now.   The dark, expensive house is still within earshot of the drone of the market, although not quite so close but it doesn’t have the same “neighborhood” feel that the distant house has, presumably because it is near the bus station and the market where there is plenty of traffic all day.    Of course, market day is fun, when the main road is suddenly filled with farmers, mostly women in bright colors, bringing their product to town sell.  But I would still pass by these throngs on my way to work, even if I did not live nearby.

Shopping would be a challenge with the distant house, although I am sure I could hire a “moto”, aka motorcycle taxi, to carry my purchases home while I trailed along behind on my bicycle.   Or perhaps even a neighborhood teen.  It might be a good way to get to know families in the neighborhood while bringing them a little income .   It is difficult to say which, in the long run, would accommodate my relatively simple lifestyle the best, but my desire for light seemed to have become a beacon, a way to center myself midst the sea of shifting priorities that cast me from side to side each time I saw a different house.

By the time I had viewed all of the houses that were currently available,  my priorities had shifted.  While I did want water and electricity, I also really  wanted light.  And despite the inconveniences with regards to travel time, carrying things home from the market, and getting to the bus stop with luggage before any travel, the writing on the wall was crystal clear for me.  If I had to travel further to get to a home that was more open and spacious,I would do so with a glad heart.  I had accepted that I would not have a house with all the light that I now have, but I could have a house with relatively more  light, and in an that was quiet and that felt somehow neighborly to me.  So I decided post haste to time the distance from the college to the more distant house.  If I could do it in less than 45″, I had chosen  my new home, assuming it was still available.  I hoped that our hesitation would not come back to haunt me.

What I have learned most of all during this house-hunting adventure  is that windows are as much a luxury as electricity and water in this tiny country, and that many people spend their hours at home in relative darkness, a strong contrast from the brilliance of the sun that greets them when they step out into their day to fetch water.   When I think about my  home in Florida, I am somewhat dismayed at the discrepancy between my two worlds.  Yet, I really do not want to have to carry water and I really would like a house with sunlight flickering through its windows.    Apparently, I have been a pampered American for too long to leave it all behind and, because of this, I will go the extra mile, literally.

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

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