Today I learned my address: Ntuuye mu intara y’amajyepfo mu karere ka ruhango mu murenge wa ruhango mu kagari ka nyamagana mu mudugudu wa gataka.
In other words, I live in Gataka village in the Nyamagana cell in the ruhango sector of the ruhango district in the Amajyepfo (try pronouncing that) province. I don’t know the name of my street, or perhaps more accurately described, my dirt road, of even if it has one, and my house doesn’t have a number. Presumably such frivolities of detail are not necessary. Obviously, if you can get as far as Gataka village in the Nyamagana cell in the Ruhango sector of Ruhango district in the Amajyepfo (don’t you love this word) province, you can then ask where the umugore w’abazungu (woman of white foreigners) lives! We usually teach young children their address and phone number as early as possible. Funny that I didn’t think to learn how to describe where I live until today, just over three months from the day I arrived in Rwanda.
I presume that, in a country just over 1000 square kilometers larger than the state of Vermont yet boasting a population of 11.92 M, 19 times larger than that state, keeping track of where people are is a complex undertaking, hence the country has been divided into progressively smaller geographically defined areas in which people can finally be located in the smallest unit of community membership, outside of the nuclear and extended family, the umudugudu (village).
In addition to being heavily populated, the country is an endless collection of hills, running from one to another, in a seamless fashion that leaves little space for flat parcels of land. Hence, its nickname – Land of 1000 Hills. The largest flat areas are in the valleys between the hills, when two hills happen to originate at the same altitude, rather than being stacked one upon the other in a staircase fashion. It is impossible to go anywhere without having to go up, or down. The capital of Kigali is, itself, a myriad of roads curling in and around the hills upon which the city rests. Distant memories of the regular grid of streets intersecting at right angles to one another in Washington D.C. give rise to eerie feelings of nostalgia and longing whenever I am confronted with the prospect of figuring out what road to take on one side of the city to get to a destination on the other side. North, south, east, west, everywhere roads are intertwined into a dizzying swirl of cars, buses, and the ubiquitous moto taxis.
In the land of 1000 hills, a straight trajectory on land from one point to another is not possible. But then, how do you decide which of the roads sweeping out in front of you will curl around to bring you to a desired location? One strategy is to defer to a taxi driver. However, then you need to be able to tell the driver where you want to go in terms that will be recognizable to him. (No, I haven’t seen any female cab drivers.) And you have to know what the fare should be in advance, so you can negotiate the appropriate rate before you actually climb into the vehicle.
When people provide directions on how to find a specific location in a city or town, descriptions are offered in terms of well-known landmarks. This means that you need to not only know where you want to go, but you need to have armed yourself with information about the landmarks usually used by residents to situate themselves in relationship to that location. So, for example, if you can get to the RDB (Regional Development Board) building in Kigali, you are only about ten minutes walk from the Peace Corps office. The RDB building is well known by anyone in the city, whereas the Peace Corps compound is not.
Upon leaving any city, the land unfolds to reveal hill after hill, terraced from top to bottom with small plots of different crops, punctuated by houses perched intermittently amongst the small cultivated fields. Apparently, before Rwandans learned how to terrace their rolling landscape, entire hillsides, homes, gardens, livestock, and families used to slide down in heavy rains, leaving owners homeless, if not dead, until they could build again. The dark red earth is hard and unforgiving. Digging out a terrace by hand is not a task for the faint of heart. But if there is soil, plants will grow, and if something can be grown, it can be eaten or sold to generate funds to buy commodities that cannot be produced by the land.
Every available slope or terrace is being used by someone for agriculture. Just in the time since my arrival, the empty lot behind my house, the slope that climbs from my dirt road up to the main road, where the town proper is located, and the slope that slides down below my road to a small valley, have all been cultivated and are already celebrating life by offering up a enthusiastic sea of new green growth. This is the rainy season, when the dry dusty land is coaxed by copious amounts of water to give up its secret store of nutrients.
When I gaze across a valley to a facing hillside I behold what looks to be a complicated tapestry of terraces and plantings, with different textures and borders. Plots devoted to urutooki, banana trees, are interspersed with fields of imyumbati (cassava), ikaawa (coffee), ibigori, (corn), ibisheke (sugar cane), imboga (various types of green leafy vegetables that I do not recognize but eat regularly), amashaza (peas), imiteja (green beans), amachngu, ipapayi (papaya), imyembe (mango), avoka (avocado), inanasi (pineapple), inyanya (tomatoes), ibitunguru, (onions), tungurusumu (garlic), tangawizi (ginger), poivroI (peppers) and intoryi (eggplants).
Whenever a flat valley is to be found, it almost always contains a checkerboard of rice fields. In fact, these are the only places where I can see anything that remotely resembles the neat squares of fields characteristic of most American farms. As I gaze out over any such expanse of flourishing greenery, I can see in the distance adults working their fields while children play with whatever natural, and unnatural, play things they have come across – sticks, rocks, water, mud, in addition to cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, jars, pieces of paper and fabric, and other bits of what most of us consider refuse and/or recyclables. Indeed, they are being recycled whenever they are used by a child as a source of personal entertainment.
However, all this natural beauty notwithstanding, my most favorite sight in the ever-unfolding magic of the 1000 hills are the ihene – goats!! I admit, I can’t remember the last time I saw a goat in the United States, so I don’t know how Rwandan goats compare to American ones. But I find the variegated color patterns of Rwandan ihene to be absolutely enchanting. Adults, teenagers, and babies (my favorites, of course), all are dappled with a unique mixture of color from the mammalian palette. Gold, rust, black, white, grey, cinnamon, beige, chocolate, and creamy vanilla, splash across their bodies with utter abandon. Each one is different, both in terms of color and design. And the ihene themselves, oblivious to their natural beauty, are gracious models of what it means to live a simple life — calmly spending their days munching on any available herbage or napping under a tree in the noonday sun. On market day, when people bring incredible collections of ihene to sell at the market, I have to stifle the knowledge that many, if not most, of the delightful creatures dancing before me are going to eventually become someone’s dinner. If I had my way, I would take them all home to live out their days blessing me with their gentle humility and uncompromising steadfastness.
*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.