Today is market day. When I ride to work the road is filling with women (plus a few men) in bright colored fabrics carrying their produce on their heads towards the market, located above my house. Unlike the people who live in my town, who often stare at me with what appears to suspicion, at best curiosity, the women going to market seem glad to see me. They often gaze at me with an open welcoming stare, responding to my greeting with a delighted smile and response. Sometimes they even offer more than the usual single word greeting as I pass them by. There is a subtle hint in the air that, were I to have been assigned to a village, rather than a transit town, or had my home been in a neighborhood instead of across from a secondary school, with only vacant houses on either side, and a field that spilled onto the main road above me, that my experience of Rwanda might have been entirely different. I suspect that I would have had an experience more similar to that which I had in Mombasa, Kenya, many years ago, where I might have been able to spend my early evening hours listening to neighbors chatting about their day, and joining when I could with my fledgling linguistic offerings. I realize in these fleeting glimpses into what might have been, that I am paying the price for having higher education.
People with a professional background like mine are not needed in the villages, but rather at colleges and universities. We are needed to help train the people who are desperately needed to teach, and to govern, so that the women and men whom I pass on the road on my way to work can have electricity, water, health care, and the hope of a better future. I am here to train future leaders and educators, not to hang out on the veranda and help my neighbor cook the samosa (savory triangular deep-fried pastries filled with meat or vegetables) that she sells every evening in the neighborhood, or to feed her son his breakfast every morning as I did over 45 years ago. I still remember learning how to feed a fried egg, runny yolk and all, with my fingers (since we didn’t use silverware to eat then) to a Naimu, a little one year old boy who lived in the house where I lived in Mombasa.
Life was simpler then. My goals were less grandiose than they are now, and my definition of success reflected this. It was the crowning achievement of my life then, and a source of great personal pride, when I was finally able perform this service without getting egg yolk all over myself, or him, or leaving a drop of it unconsumed on the plate. He must be 40 years old by now. I wonder if he remembers me at all. Maybe he now has a son of his own. I would guess that, if he does, he is feeding him with a spoon. The art of eating a fried egg neatly with one’s fingers has probably been lost to us forever.
Now, I am not saying that both might not be possible, to live in a neighborly neighborhood and to work in higher education, just that it is not what is happening to me now. Things may change in December when I move to another residence, and I hope they will. Certainly my insatiable desireBut, even then, I do not think that living in a transit town such as this will ever be quite the same as living in a village. In cities, such as Kigali, people have had more exposure to foreigners. You can walk about the town and feel almost the same as if you were in any other city around the world. In a transit town, people have had limited exposure to foreigners, but are familiar with their existence in so far as the continual flow of traffic passing through the town regularly reminds them that there is a world beyond their community.
Realistically, when a main road cuts a swathe through the middle of your village, bringing with it a continuous flow of traffic and, later, an every lengthening row of amaduka (shops) and abacuruzi (shopkeeprs) to serve the travelers passing by, you no longer live in a village. You now live in a town, and much of the local intimacy that characterizes village life is forever gone. Perhaps travel is out of reach for residents of the newly emerging town, but they are constantly reminded of the possibility of other opportunities. Attention that previously went into maintaining local life moves outward. People dream of something beyond the home, their neighbors, and the community. Presumably this is why most of the administrators and faculty at the college where I work do not actually live in the town where the college is located. Some live 30″, some 60″, some even travel almost two hours, usually by bus, to and from work in order to call Kigali, the capital, their home. Only I am left here at the end of the day, with other local residents, to watch the buses take everyone away to their chosen homes somewhere else, and to wonder what they know that we do not…
The allure of the city that captures the hearts and minds of people around the world, whether it be Paris, New York, Nairobi, Rome, Tokyo, Cairo, Dubai, Istambul, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bangkok, Shanghai, Mumbai, Johannesburg, or any other of the major metropoles speckling the surface of the earth, is here in Rwanda, just as in any other country around the globe. Cities are where everyone goes when they want a better life than the one that they were born into. Still, I can’t help but wonder what all of us city dwellers are missing when I ride through the sea of smiling faces of people coming from the villages to the town on market day.
*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.